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The government plans to scrap student loans for ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees

Universities are facing pressure from ministers to tackle so-called ‘low-value’ degrees – but who decides what constitutes a ‘valuable’ course?

The UK government has pledged to crack down on so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees by threatening to withdraw student loan funding from low-quality courses.

Universities are now facing pressure from the Office of Students to do something about their “low-value” courses – but figuring out what constitutes a “low-value” course is proving to be far from straightforward. Universities UK (UUK) has suggested that institutions consider factors such as student drop-out figures, student satisfaction, contribution to culture, and graduate unemployment when it comes to assessing a course’s worth. UUK also suggests taking into account graduate earnings.

Ministers haven’t specifically mentioned creative courses – just “Mickey Mouse degrees”, which is frustratingly vague – but their concern at how much graduates are costing the taxpayer spells danger for creative arts students. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that creative arts degrees cost the taxpayer 30 per cent more than engineering degrees, as arts graduates are less likely to pay back their student loan in full. As a result, arts graduates can cost the taxpayer up to £35,000 each, with degrees in subjects like Music, Drama, Fine Art and Design Studies proving the most costly.

Worryingly, if courses are judged to be “low-value”, they could have their student loan funding withdrawn – making their continuation unsustainable. 

The government has historically exhibited unbridled disdain for arts students: most recently, a 50 per cent slash in funding for art and design courses was announced in July 2021, while in October 2021 they proposed limiting the number of spots on arts courses. For young creatives, this recent news could be the nail in the coffin.

Aamani Fahiya, 19, is currently studying styling and production at London College of Fashion. ”I guess in this capitalistic society that we’re living in, you can’t even choose what course you do at uni unless it benefits the economy,” she says.

Fahiya is also concerned about how ministers plan to ascertain what is a “low-value” course or how universities will quantify a “contribution to culture”. “Different people value things differently, so for a few people to determine some people's passions ‘unvaluable’ is unfair,” she says. “It's just a small minority dictating what's valuable using their personal opinions and preferences.”

“It seems as though the government are trying to remove resources from subjects that could potentially be threatening to their regime,” she continues. “Art has the power to stir emotion and truly move people. Art is capable of creating change.”

Isaac Roach, 21, recently graduated from Leeds College of Music where he studied Music Production. He shares Fahiya’s sentiments: “The phrase 'Mickey Mouse degree' is fucking toxic and indicative of this attack on arts education we've seen for years,” he says.

Roach adds that it’s an even more insulting proposal given the contributions made to British culture – and the nation’s economy – by arts graduates. “A major part of this country's economy is the music industry, for one thing,” he says. “We had The Beatles, we had The Rolling Stones, do you know what I mean? It seems ridiculous that people can have that sort of mindset because art is so important to our national identity and way of living.” Roach is right: the UK music industry was valued at £3.1 billion in 2020.

He adds that he doesn’t see how cracking down on so-called Mickey Mouse degrees will improve the quality of education. “I agree that the value of a degree has dropped and we’re living in an environment where kids are expected to sign up for a student loan straight out of school,” he says. “But this weird capitalist hellscape hasn't come from a vacuum – it’s come from ten years of destructive Tory policy.”

Roach is right to point out that higher education has its flaws. The commodification of education is undoubtedly a pressing issue: only three years ago a student sued Anglia Ruskin University for failing to deliver the high-quality teaching they promised. The government are right to investigate whether the teaching students receive is proportional to tuition fees, but targeting subjects with low graduate earnings and being imprecise about what constitutes “good value” is the wrong way to go about it.

“This proposal of punishing certain sectors doesn’t solve the issue,” Roach surmises. “It will just shift the blame from policymakers to young people and fuels greater inequality amongst access to education.”