paint on a palette

Creativity or Class? Affluence driving elitism in UK art schools

By Lorna Doyle

The social class divide in art schools and how it pushes poorer students out

Class dynamics in the arts industry is a conversation that people dance around. Access to a creative education should be available without obstacles, however it is gatekept by elitism and bought opportunity from those who can afford it. In a world that preaches the value of individual talent and hard work, we thrive on the trope that success is attainable simply by overcoming hardship and demolishing barriers.

In short, the system is failing those who come from low income backgrounds. The 2011 census reveals that 16.4% of people working in creative industries born between 1953 and 1962 came from working class origins, a number that drops to just 7.9% of those born in the 1990s and early 2000s. While there are fewer people from working class backgrounds in Britain overall, it doesn’t add up that the percentage of those working in the arts industry should have halved. Arts institutions are being upstaged by Oxford and Cambridge in their admission of students from state schools; according to data collected in 2017, London’s Royal Academy of Music and Courtauld Institute of Art welcomed 44% and 55% of their undergraduate students from state schools respectively, whereas Oxford admitted 58% and Cambridge 63%. With the loss of funding, arts institutions are forced to become businesses, and generate income from a wealthy international client base, who pay for access to study, and the materials, equipment, and space with which to learn and participate in the prestige of expensive institutions.

The prevalence of unpaid work at entry level in the creative and cultural occupations results in the exclusion of those without the means to fund the start of a career. Working for free differs by age, career stage, and social class origins, with those at a later stage or wealthy backgrounds choosing unpaid work as experience or assistance to others. However, for younger, early stage professionals, and those from less affluent origins, unpaid work is exploitative and relatively unrewarding.

Social inequality within the arts is not simply influenced by class. Class itself is far more complex than socioeconomic status, and intersects with other demographic categories such as race, gender, age, and disability. Belief in meritocracy tends to overlap with social reproduction, and the denial of expanding access to resources on account of naming talent and hard work as the simple ingredients of success. Education creates opportunity – however the opportunity for education is often created by social networks, family background and wealth, gender, and ethnicity. 

Art is inherently political and a significant vehicle for social change. With a cultural sector that is “overwhelmingly male, pale, and stale” what are the chances of bringing about the developments and opportunities for equality that are desperately needed? Overall, 18.2% of those working in visual and performing arts come from working class origins, and 4.8% are black and minority ethnic. The education system in the UK is assembled around social hierarchies, and has evolved to sustain segregation along boundaries such as class, ethnicity, and gender. It is hardly a secret that funding for education favours subjects of perceived economic value.

Indeed, the government’s dismissal of degrees that “don’t increase earning potential” means that those who cannot afford to pursue them are directed instead down pathways that ensure a livable income, and a career in the arts becomes nothing more than a glorified hobby funded by generational wealth. The declining status of humanities and the arts originates in ignorance towards their value compared to STEM subjects, and polarising science and art perpetuates the dismissal of cultural learning in favour of occupational degrees and subjects that correlate with the highest earning jobs. However, rather than renouncing the value of any career path, we need to erase the educational hierarchy – acknowledging the parallels and influences that can be drawn between subjects like music and medicine, art and maths, or the sensual and the cerebral. 

Protecting the arts is, fundamentally, a social justice issue. Our societal responsibility is shaped by an education that teaches us to listen, observe, and empathise with our surroundings – skills that are obtained and enhanced through engagement with the arts. More than that, it teaches us that our position in the world is more than the pursuit of wealth and servitude to the powers that reward us for our dedication to the five day working week. If the arts are reserved for the rich, class disparities are maintained and widened. 

The evidence to support the societal importance of arts education is far from elusive. Cultural learning is the cure-all supplement, generally increasing cognitive ability by 17% and improving physical health, productivity, and the likelihood that students from low-income backgrounds earn a degree, stay in employment, volunteer, and vote, as well as reducing crime. Participation in the arts fuels social mobility. 

The facts make it abundantly clear that the exponential exclusivity of arts education is to our detriment. The assumption that the bedrock of an education is its economic contribution is symptomatic of our depressing descent into capitalist dystopia, in which the average individual is a cog in a machine maintaining the playground of the rich and famous. Supported by the work of those who cannot afford otherwise, the freedom to express and dictate the collective, imaginative voice is enjoyed only by the 1%.


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Mrs EG Gallagher

Agree, my daughter was a genuine talent, she excelled in Art at school.
She applied for work experience while awaiting her art higher(4 A grades and was still refused at Glasgow School of Art.
It was such a waste she then went to University and did a completely different subject.
The situation is very much like the entry for medicine, quite shameful.

Mrs EG Gallagher

Agree, my daughter was a genuine talent, she excelled in Art at school.
She applied for work experience while awaiting her art higher(4 A grades and was still refused a visit to Glasgow School Of Art.
It was such a waste she then went to University and did a completely different subject.
The situation is very much like the entry for medicine.