“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” With the final couplet of his poem, John Keats – who died 200 years ago in Rome, aged 25 – offered one of the enduring definitions of beauty in English literature, in words he imagined spoken by a Greek urn more than 2,000 years old. Not every student is a reader of romantic poetry. But learning to think about what is beautiful, and why, is one of the purposes of education.

Such lessons are not only learned via the arts: sports, science and maths too provide opportunities for aesthetic appreciation. But the facility of creative expression through dance, music, theatre and visual arts is part of what it means to be human, and has been since the earliest cave paintings. Though the sector contributed £112bn to the economy in 2018, it is the conviction that the arts are of fundamental importance to civilisation, more than a wish to promote the businesses that monetise these talents, that animates the reaction against plans to cut funding to arts courses (along with media studies and archaeology) at English universities.

The plans stem from a consultation by the Office for Students (OfS), a government agency, and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson. The funding that is being reduced is part of the overall teaching budget of £1.47bn, which tops up income from tuition fees; the cuts appear designed to offset increases in other areas (including student hardship funds and mental health support). For an individual student on one of the affected courses, it would fall from £243 to £121.50 (a reduction of £364.50 over a three-year degree).

On Wednesday, the University for the Creative Arts announced the closure of its campus in Rochester, Kent, while the Musicians’ Union has warned of widespread “catastrophic” effects. Those hit hardest by the halving of an overall budget of £36m to £19m will include the University of the Arts London, although most of the £3.8m it is expected to lose is down to the removal of London weighting.

Arguably more important than the actual cuts is the signal that the government is sending: unlike science, maths, veterinary studies, engineering, technology and nursing, the arts are not a strategic priority. The letter to the OfS from Mr Williamson pointed to “further reductions in future years”. No wonder artists and musicians including Jarvis Cocker are protesting loudly.

They are right to. Encouraging more young people to train as nurses is a good idea. Discouraging them from learning to sing, paint or dance is wrong. The government says that there will be extra funding for “world-leading” specialist providers of such an education. Yet the arts and culture sectors are already marred by a lack of diversity. By promoting the idea that higher education in these areas is worthwhile only for an exceptional few, the government is indulging in snobbery. It is also sending the wrong message to all the artists, cultural organisations and businesses that contribute such a huge amount to the social and economic life of this country – at a time when many of them have never needed support more.



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