To halt the decline in arts A-levels, government needs to change its story

There has been a steep decline in A-Level entries to arts subjects this year. Lorenza Antonucci has a hypothesis about why this might be

While a record number of students have been accepted onto degree courses in the UK this year, the recent A-level results also reveal that labour market returns play a large part in determining students’ chosen courses. In order to understand the recent drop in arts-based subjects taken by students in A-Level entries, we need to discuss the changing context of student funding and how current higher education is framing ‘student choice’.

The trend towards more ‘vocational’ A-level subjects such as maths and sciences is, indeed, a natural consequence of having framed higher education as a private investment, whose success depends on labour market returns.

Few can afford the luxury of studying subjects that do not lead to a guaranteed career.

After the 2012/2013 reforms, student debt increased from an average of £10,299 in 2012/2013 to an expected average of £44,000. Students who enter higher education from September 2016 will have it even worse: the Sutton Trust has predicted an increase in English student debt in excess of £50,000 after the abolition of grants this year, while the last higher education bill, with the removal of the soft cap in fees, will result in even higher fees for students starting in 2017. The financial concerns of the students who joined my study were not limited to funding in itself: an important number of students were struggling in finding ways to respond to the increasing living costs, in particular the rising housing costs lamented in recent student rent strikes.

In this tight student funding climate, it’s no surprise that fewer pupils are studying arts subjects, as few of them can afford the luxury of studying subjects at university that do not lead to a guaranteed career. My research shows that the view of higher education as a private investment profoundly affects the attitudes adopted by students on their subjects and their perceived employability. Interviewing participants across six cities in England, Italy and Sweden, I found that young people taking up loans, in particular, were very conscious of future labour market returns.

The pressure of achieving high returns in the labour market with a university degree clashes with the latest evidence showing that even graduates struggle in the current market climate. In my study I found that students who had a positive outlook on their post-university labour market transitions, because they were enrolled in highly employable areas (such as engineering), were better able to cope with their present financial struggles. Conversely, issues of mental well-being were very evident amongst students facing both financial pressures in the present (because of their lack of funding) and studying in subject areas with a perceived lower level of employability (such as arts and humanities).

Far from being the great social equalizer, university attendance is more likely to deepen existing social inequalities.

It might be true, as the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook argues, that this year’s A-level results could see a 7% increase in 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, compared to 2015 figures. This, however, says very little about the financial circumstances that students will encounter once in higher education.

Far from being the great social equalizer, my study shows that university attendance is more likely to reinforce and deepen existing social inequalities. Previous studies have shown how arts and the creative industries are now accessible only to privileged classes; my findings suggest this exclusion might start even at the stage of choosing your A-level subjects.

If the government really wants to encourage more pupils to study arts subjects and foreign languages at A-level, university studies need to be financially accessible and less dependent on labour market returns. Moving away from means testing to embrace a less goal-driven, universal approach to student funding, such as the one present in Sweden, is probably overly ambitious (although a recent proposal of putting student funding back to general taxation is gaining momentum).

A more moderate yet powerful step would be opening up a debate on the language employed by higher education policies and their effects on student choices. The recent White Paper setting out the forthcoming higher education reforms in England perpetuates the narrative of higher education as a mere investment attached only to labour market returns. A change in the language is necessary if the government wants to encourage studies in all subjects, not just those with ‘high [perceived] employability’.

Dr Lorenza Antonucci explores these ideas in more detail in her forthcoming book, ‘Student Lives in Crisis’, and will speak at a London seminar on tackling inequalities in higher education, in October.

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