The Guardian reports today that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is preparing to inflict cuts on itself of up to 50% as part of the forthcoming government spending clampdown.
This reduction in its own staff is in keeping with the cuts it is anticipated the department will make in its funding of the arts and sport. With the big expense of the Olympics relatively protected and big tourist draws relatively safe (such as free entry to major art galleries and museums) then the axe is going to fall particularly savagely on less high-profile spending. Â Bodies such as the Arts Council in England, which funds 850 organisations, are going to find they have a lot less money to give out in grants. I know of many small enterprises, such as poetry magazines, that struggle along even with the help of a small amount of money from the Arts Council. Similarly, this is the source of the already meagre funding for many students who study arts or creative writing at postgraduate level.
The government has expressed what seems like a somewhat naive hope that private benefactors will step in and plug the funding gaps — as happens in America. I remember when I lived in the US for a year in the mid-80s how mystified I was to see the PBS channel regularly soliciting its viewers for donations — something at the time I found quite shocking but, like TV sponsorship, would not be quite so alien in the UK nowadays.
One of the governments other big targets for expenditure cuts is higher education so it’s not difficult to predict what’s likely to happen to the arts in education over the next few years. I would expect creative writing courses to be put under very tight scrutiny. One point in the courses’ favour is that they’re popular and accessible — people are quite willing to pay to do postgraduate and continuing education courses in writing. They also don’t involve much capital spending on the part of the university — just a room to sit in — unlike courses that require neutron colliders that cost billions, as at Oxford. However, as Emma, who taught us briefly at the end of last term, pointed out — to teach creative writing properly there needs to be a fairly low student to staff ratio — the teaching is interactive. I remember when I was doing my MBA at Kingston being quite astonished at the size of the audience for the undergraduate business course lectures — there were hundreds of them to one lecturer.
Also, a school leaver is going to have to be pretty confident of their future ability as a writer to do creative writing at undergraduate level — passing up the opportunity to get a more ‘marketable’ qualification.
One consequence is that I’d suggest anyone who wants to get a creative writing qualification, like an MA for example, might be better applying sooner rather than later. It’s too late for universities to cancel courses for the next academic year but they will certainly review them carefully for the year afterwards. I can’t see them disappearing but there may be fewer to choose from and perhaps the teaching will be less individual. However, it was Emma’s view that the standard on our City Novel Writing course was MA standard anyway and that the only reason that any of us would find it advisable to take an MA would be if we wanted to teach — and perhaps having a published novel would be more credible in that case anyway.
What might have more lasting consequences is that universities will cut staff in creative writing departments and postgraduate and doctoral students will find it a lot more difficult to gain funding. Many university courses, such as those at City, are taught by lecturers who aren’t full time academic staff (at least at that university anyway) and are working themselves on PhDs and the like while also working on their own novels, poetry or other writing. I guess this route into getting some financial support while developing a writing career is now going to be pretty difficult to follow. These people also give time and support to the large network of ‘underground’ publishing, such as e-zines and small circulation magazines, that nurture the careers of more experimental and literary writers.
With government grants drying up and a major source of financial security (in higher education teaching) likely to wither away then both writers and the outlets they currently use are going to feel the pinch with disproportionate severity unless some private funding can replace that cut by the government. With some exceptions, commercial funding is not likely to support writing that is experimental or provocative. This might have a peculiar knock-on effect as the pursuit of literary prizes might take on even more prominence. Perhaps a new author with literary ambitions might be taken on by a publisher with the sole intention of being submitted for a prize — and if the author doesn’t win or get shortlisted then they could be dumped straight away?
The effect of the ‘new austerity’ is going to be pretty bleak right across the writing spectrum. While the more commercial genres tend to have no need of government subsidy, new authors in these genres may well have benefited from some subsidised support. Also, any author with a literary bent who finds the traditional means of support to be dwindling may decide to switch into a commercial genre, at least temporarily, in an attempt to pay the bills by publishing a work that will sell in large numbers — thus making that market more crowded?