The British government has dramatically cut funding for community colleges. This action has a huge impact on England's arts, a large slice of the economy. On the chopping block are classes that have “no progression”, or classes which do not progress into careers. The government will also no longer will fund repeated learning classes, otherwise known as clubs. I take an Afro-Cuban drumming class at a community college which is full of interesting characters that would never usually convene – from pensioners, to Rastafarian's, to Indian drummers.
Working Men’s College (WMC) in Camden is an adult education institution, or community college, which was founded in the UK in 1854 and has been at the service to the community for years. Its early supporters included John Ruskin and Ford Maddox Brown. Unfortunately, WMC college along with other community colleges’ programs for the community are about to end. My Afro-Cuban Conga class is on the list to close.
Not a Cuban but a Scot teaches my class and in the class there is a mix of people – a pensioner with arthritis, Keith from Virgin Islands, and a Persian woman who taught us all to wish each other Happy New Year in her native language. Where else could such an extreme cast of characters meet?
Being surrounded by people of difference ages and cultures teaches us about tolerance, not to mention earning confidence at having a new skill set. In communities, cultural exchanges are important for a lively and vibrant community. We share our differences and accept each other. This creates a peaceful community setting for learning. As one student, Sophie, tells me “watching and learning from other students is just as important as learning from the teacher.”
Students signing up for a class like Cuban drumming are socially diverse and I fear the cuts in funding will kill the class. I do not see city bankers in pinstriped suites rushing to tap out rumba rhythms. This will mean there may not be enough full paying students signing up for the class and the college will be forced to scrap the class altogether. This is what happened last year when both the beginner and intermediate 'Learning to Play the Blues' classes were closed.
Clubs create a sense of belonging; they help improve motivation, health, and happiness. When people are given a chance to connect to others it helps everyone. Perhaps it’s a pensioner’s only outing for the week. And we know older people stay healthier longer when they stay engaged and are active. As Elizabeth, one art student tells me, “I am 81 and still going strong!” One woman at WMC says if she did not go to her art class she could be causing the National Health Service (NHS) bills to double, as art was her “therapy.” There has been so much in the press about saving the NHS and more of the budgets money is being given to the NHS. Isn’t it time for the government to stop being short-sighted and think more long term? They are making cuts at the root of the branch so that later they will pay the more expensive price of disorder at the end of the line. As they say in Chinese medicine, it is easier to “treat the root of the problem. If you only treat the symptom it’s always more expensive.”
Despite being the wrong cuts in the wrong places, the government’s justification for the cuts is that they only want to fund classes that give people immediate jobs after the course, classes that progress with career results. However, art and music are just as valuable, even when there is not a quick and immediate result.
Paul, who is taking a drawing class that will be affected by the cuts, tells me “life drawing is valuable in all kinds of ways such as in the games industry.” According to NESTA, the UK games industry may be worth as much as £1.73 billion. “Games use artificial humans – avatars – and you need an artist’s drawing skills to make them convincing,” Paul tells me. “It’s short-sighted if the government doesn’t fund training. This doesn’t happen in one course. It needs continuing work. On his deathbed Degas famously said ‘Damn, and just when I am about to get it.’”
The same is true of music; it’s a valuable UK industry. According to government, creative industries in the UK are currently worth £8 million an hour – that’s £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy. This sector grew by 10 percent in 2012, outperforming all other sectors, and accounted for 1.68 million jobs or 5.6 percent of all jobs. Specifically the gross value added of the creative industries has increased by 15.6 percent since 2008. The export value of the creative industry was £15.5 billion in 2011, or 8 percent of total UK service exports. Between 2009 and 2011 the value of exports increased by 16.1 percent, compared with an average increase in service industries of 11.5 percent.
What does this show you? That music is great for the British economy. If the government cuts music class funding, it will also harm the economy on the long run. Music isn’t just “fun and games,” it is viable business.
Chris Bryant MP wasn’t such a “smooth operator” – to quote Sade – when he said “We can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk.” Any and all success should be celebrated. No route to success is easy whatever background you come from. Their argument was more about what is up in the “stars” rather than bringing the real problem to light back here on Earth. Which is how the budget is cut up and currently “it’s a crime.”
Victoria Aitken is a journalist, songwriter and singer. She has published in The Sunday Times, Style Magazine, The Daily Mail, Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, and has written for The Guardian. Victoria has performed to audiences in London, Manhattan, Berlin, Dubai and Paris. Her songs have received note and praise in publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vogue, GQ, W, Elle, The Daily Telegraph and E! News.