THE GREATEST PRICE OF AUSTERITY? PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE

by Edward Grierson

As a child, I always looked forward to a visit to the National Museum of Scotland. An hour’s journey to Edinburgh was always a small price worth paying if it meant passing a wet weekend or day out from the holiday among dinosaurs, dioramas, steam trains and robots that could spell your name. Since then the museum has undergone countless changes, but whenever I return, I can always be certain to discover something new.

However, those trips to the museum were much more than just a fun day out. I can confidently say that they were a major formative influence for me, particularly in inspiring my love of nature. Without the influence of the National Museum of Scotland, I would not be who I am today. I can also confidently say I’m not the only one. I speak for countless others whose interests, whatever they are, were inspired by visiting trips to a museum.

Unfortunately, two people who don’t appear to be aware of this are Philip Hammond or his predecessor George Osborne, because under austerity our public museums have suffered severely. Last year, 39% of museums owned by local authorities and 54% of those formerly owned by them reported drops in funding, and a respective 65% and 50% have had to charge admission fees for entry, along with 47% of national museums.

Cutting funding to museums to the point that they have to charge fees equates, whether intentionally or not, to making these wellsprings of knowledge something only for the privileged few.

This may seem like small fry. Surely there are more important issues in the world of politics? In fact, this is not only a major educational issue – museums provide the visual and interactive learning that a lot of children require – but also a class issue. Arguably the greatest aspect of Britain’s fantastic museum network is not the education they provide, but the fact that they provide it for free. This means that children, no matter how rich or poor, have access to this education; the knowledge offered is universal. Cutting funding to museums to the point that they have to charge fees equates, whether intentionally or not, to making these wellsprings of knowledge something only for the privileged few.

(National Museum of Scotland. Credit: Paul Hudson / Flickr. CC by 2.0)

While museums have been an integral part of my life growing up, libraries barely featured. Despite being a prolific reader, I was accustomed to having books in the house, or having enough money to buy a book I wanted. However for many children from a less privileged background than me, this is not the case. For countless children from poorer backgrounds, or who simply don’t have books in their houses, the local library has been a place of refuge. Many of those young readers even went and still go on to become authors themselves, making the library an integral force in upholding Britain’s culture.

Yet austerity hasn’t been kind to libraries either. From 2010-2016, 343 libraries were closed due to funding cuts. What this ignores is the function these spaces provide, which is one of the most important things a public institution can do: encourage reading for pleasure. This simple activity has been found to develop emotional cognition, reduce risk of stress, and even influence grade attainability later in life. The total scores for children reading frequently from the age of 10 equates to a 10% increase in maths and 14% increase in vocabulary from infrequent or non-readers. At a time when the education system is more focused on test scores than ever, when the boundary for the highest grade is equivalent to the highest mark for an A*, cutting funding for our libraries is a major step backwards.

For countless children from poorer backgrounds, or who simply don’t have books in their houses, the local library has been a place of refuge.

Now, I’m aware that what I say will create a lot of questions from others: what do public institutions such as these really contribute to the nation? Do public buildings deserve the same attention as the NHS, the emergency services and the armed forces? Why should I expect these places to be free? To which my answer is twofold.

( Save Our Libraries Action Day, Norwich. Credit: Rowan Whiteside )

Firstly, there is a tangible economic benefit from keeping museums and libraries open. This can be seen in both the negative side effect of ignoring this public knowledge – low literacy levels, when present in the workforce, cost the UK economy £81 billion – the economic turnout of these institutions – such as the £1.45 billion Britain’s museums generate for the economy – and most importantly the returns from investing in them. For every £1 invested, a museum brings £3 in returns, making it a very worthwhile investment for any government.

But far more important than the money these institutions make is, as already mentioned, the knowledge they provide, knowledge which is crucial to enable social mobility. This is the reason why we should keep our public institutions open, and why they deserve to be free: to ensure that even the poorest in society have this knowledge at their disposal, and in doing so have the tools necessary to escape the poverty cycle.

At the same time as funding for our public institutions is being slashed, corporations in the UK received £93 billion in subsidies. Ultimately, what we’re seeing is austerity in all the wrong places. If we are so eager, under austerity, to help society’s richest, we should certainly be able to help society’s poorest.

Featured image: Dinendra Haria


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