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Untitled 2004 (aluminium foil guitarist)
Tom Friedman

South London Gallery
Until 1st August 2004
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Top up Fees [added 12/5/03]

A recent report published by Arts Council England begs the question, as a society do we value art but not the artist?. The report, A Balancing Act reveals the level of earnings, employment and career patterns for artists in relationship to reform of the tax and benefit system. The findings are brought into perspective by the on going debate concerning the funding of higher education. If university funding is to be allied to the ability for an institution to charge top up fees and the latter is tied to the prospective earnings of graduates where does this leave art schools?

The Future of Higher Education white paper, sets out three clear aims: to increase access to 50% of young people by 2005 - an uplift of 16%; to re-position the relationship between research and teaching radically; to change the funding base radically. The former will largely be through a two year Foundation Degree, built across the workplace, Higher Education and Further Education. Much of the emphasis in the white paper is on science and technology and research in relationship to economic production, with the aim of 'a knowledge-based economy for both our economic competitiveness and improvements in our quality of life.' Partnerships are to be sought with the Regional Development Agencies. The creation of an Arts, Humanities and Research Council is, however welcome.

From 2006 some universities will be able to charge additional fees of up to £3000 a year. The student will not have to pay off the loan for these fees until they have reached a certain level of income, for some artists it may take a long time to trigger repayment. University fees will become akin to the mortgages as one of life's long-term debts.

Sir Michael Bichard, Rector of the London Institute has raised the issue of how those institutions that cannot charge fees are to maintain and improve standards. (see, The Guardian, Monday 27th January click here.) The white paper specifically states that institution's fees should be linked to the potential earnings premium of students - arts graduates rate at16% compared with law graduates at 40%. Sir Michael Bichard is quoted, "Arts courses require resources too .....Sometimes indeed they are particularly costly to run. So if on the logic of the white paper we should not be levying increased funds, where pray will the resources come from, given that later in the white paper the government states that it will provide income for universities equal to the contribution levels they have set. If you lead a specialist arts institution with no ability to cross-subsidise the dilemma is particularly acute." … he concludes: " The economic arguments for higher education are not the only arguments …. we need to support subjects which do not necessarily lead to high earnings." He also points out the very real danger that students will be put off by fear of debt, particularly those from already disadvantaged back grounds.

Arts Council England's report, A Balancing Act: artists’ labour markets and the tax and benefit systems reveals the insecurity of artists' work and employment patterns and the low status attributed to cultural production, despite increasing evidence of its contribution to the economy and societal well being. For example, the "average gross weekly earnings among cultural occupations fell from about 22 per cent above the non-cultural average in 1992 to 14 per cent above in 2000 …..Over the 1990s …… the substantial growth of employment in cultural occupations has been accompanied by a decline in their relative earnings. This is in contrast to professional and associate professional occupations in general." Many artists 'portfolio work' across a number of different occupations and suffer acute conflict between career and family responsibilities. It also highlights the hidden costs, largely in research and development, of artistic practice.

The higher education debate has now moved on - consultation on the white paper ended at the end of April. There has been considerable confusion over access and how this will be related to funding. The Tory Party has announced its policy proposal to drop tuition fees.... The issue of the value of the artist and artistic practice in society and how this value is positioned within formulaic arguments of economic return remains.

For a copy of the white paper click here. To download a copy of the ACE report from the Arts Council England website, click here.