The Creative Society is an arts employment charity that helps young people into jobs in the creative and cultural industries.
Vince Cable wants to introduce a “variable graduate tax” as the primary means of funding university education but what impact would that have on creative arts graduates whose lifelong earnings are notoriously low, often lower than those without degree-level qualifications? Guest blogger Kit Friend, former campaigns officer of the University of the Arts London Student Union and chair of culture for the Conservative Party’s centre-right Bow Group believes it is the fairest means of HE funding.
After two years of lobbying, the government is listening to us and considering moving from a fee-based Higher Education funding system to a graduate contribution (read: additional tax for graduates). Yes that’s right, students have been lobbying FOR this change, have voted it through our local unions in referenda, held debates, and even passed it at the conference of our National Union of Students.
Graduate tax is the fairest route to fund HE for the same reason top-up fees were first justified – the graduate premium. The lifetime additional earnings a graduate will receive over a school-leaver with 2 GCE A-levels or equivalent is around £100,000 – shrunk drastically from New Labour’s claims of £400,000, but the difference points more to our former government’s commitment to hyperbole than to the effects of recession. Nevertheless, there is a fiscal benefit from Higher Education and it is not unreasonable therefore to expect a fiscal contribution from the students who will benefit in the long term.
I will not, in this post, deal with the hysteria that a graduate tax will encourage mass migration of university leavers; this is no more a threat than it is under the current system. But the Cable plan does present both excitement and challenge for the creative industries and arts education.
The graduate tax highlights an awkward truth for arts graduates – we represent the only discipline in Higher Education with a negative graduate premium for our students, and the lowest lifetime earnings on average for any subject. Many in our sector defend this – “It’s not about the money” they say – but the graduate tax firms up the issue. If our skills are useful, if the positive contribution we make to culture and community is so vital, and our sector is the fastest growing (and the healthiest in Europe allegedly) – why shouldn’t arts graduates expect the same average earnings as graduates from other subjects? We could let the market control the path to this conclusion – all sides seem happy to acknowledge that in the new shape of higher education, universities “must be allowed to fail”. If the core income source for courses becomes the earnings of an institution’s graduates, and in the arts this proves so minuscule that colleges and universities are forced to cut back on provision, the scarcity of arts graduates could create higher earnings and solve the over-supply issue often cited as a reason for low pay.
But do we want it to get to this point? It would not be a meritocratic solution: we would not be able to guarantee access for the most talented to the privatised system that would be likely to emerge as institutions need to supplement coffers with up-front-fee-payers (including international students). I would argue that, instead, if we want a sector that encourages the brightest talent, we have first to directly address the issue of low-pay.
As David Beckham revealed of his passion for Lego : “I know it’s not a career but I love doing it”. This used to be an acceptable approach in our own sector but maybe that attitude is dying: RIP the casual creative, all hail the arts professional.