Arts and cultural education have resulted in some of the greatest and most successful UK exports – from the BBC’s television programmes, to musicians and designers. But it seems this Conservative government is intent on scrapping what little remains of arts education and British soft power.
“I want you to have a job at the end… because I’m interested in outputs”, is what education secretary Nadhim Zahawi recently told me when I asked him about the role of higher education in today’s society.
This encapsulates what seems to be an increasingly common and harmful way of thinking about education and culture in Britain today. Put in other words: “If it doesn’t make a profit, we’re not interested.”
This is why we should follow Italy’s example and give everyone turning 18 a £500 culture bonus that could be spent on anything cultural, including books, instruments, concert tickets and music streaming.
I can only imagine what it would have felt like to be granted such freedom as an 18-year-old, being able to go and watch the films I wanted or to buy a musical instrument of my own. Not only would this be a world -class birthday gift, but it would also be a massive and much-needed investment in the cultural future of our country.
Various studies suggest that by 2040, tens of millions more jobs will be automated or lost to organisations moving into new areas of innovation. This does not have to be a bad thing, if we are prepared.
However, our education system is far from geared to meet the changes that are coming. There is still far too much emphasis on learning specific bits of information in order to pass exams, rather than instilling a philosophy of pursuing avenues of interest and a culture of lifelong learning.
If our jobs are to be lost to robots, we should master what they cannot; we should enhance our creativity and use our inspiration for the common good, whether that is communication skills or artistic pursuits.
This may seem very utopian to some, but the Covid-19 pandemic ought to have shown us the importance of those pesky arts graduates in keeping us sane and entertained during various lockdowns.
And yet, last year the government put forward a proposal that would halve the funding of arts subjects at universities. This is just another example of short-sighted policymaking that will have negative consequences, particularly for people from lower-income backgrounds who will no longer be able to follow their passions at degree level.
By introducing an egalitarian culture bonus, we could change the narrative that art is a middle-class pursuit, as well as countering the idea that art should result in direct economic profit, whether as a hobby or as a degree.
I have spent several years in Finland’s renowned education system as a student, and though it is far from perfect, our Nordic friends are ahead of us in this area. Not only are well-funded music, art, woodwork, handicraft and cooking classes offered for free to all students, often they are compulsory.
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In addition to providing valuable life skills such as being able to fix simple electrics and use a washing machine, children are given the opportunity to explore their creativity as part of the curriculum, which teaches people from a young age that no education is useless.
Though it may be true that museum visits do not directly affect your grades – they do not need to. Enjoyment of the world around us should be seen as worth doing regardless, and the introduction of a culture bonus might open more people’s eyes to this. Cultural participation can also relax us, improve mental health, create a sense of community, and even act as a form of counter-radicalisation.
Rory Buccheri, who received the culture bonus in 2017, tells me: “As an idea it has merit, but I doubt it was a coincidence that it was introduced by Matteo Renzi’s government to 18-year-olds right before the general election.”
This is an idea that could easily be trialled at a local level and the costs offset by the government clamping down on the tens of billions of pounds that are lost to tax avoidance every year.
Britain’s culture sector is under immense financial pressure and rapid action is needed to save it. The introduction of a culture bonus would bring a much-needed injection of cash into the arts, as well as placing potential and creativity in the hands of our young people . Surely, that is worth investing in.