The decision by Warwick SU to support a campaign to encourage the RSC to end its sponsorship arrangement with BP is ill-informed, unnecessary and damaging to students’ interests. Currently, BP sponsors a scheme to provide subsidised £5 tickets to RSC performances for those aged 16-25, but, after the recent All-Student Meeting, the student body voted for an online motion to support a campaign seeking to end this arrangement. Without addressing the dubious legitimacy of the SU’s democratic process, the passing of this motion is deeply misguided in its own right.
The text of the motion makes the point that in the financial year 2016-2017, the RSC’s finances showed a surplus of £4 million, and the authors use this figure to argue that the RSC could afford to fund the £5 tickets scheme independent of BP’s financial support. However, this is a highly disingenuous piece of misinformation. An in-depth examination of the RSC’s finances reveals that corporate sponsorship makes up as much as £5.1 million of the Company’s income. Without this funding, the RSC would actually be running a deficit, and this reveals why corporate sponsorship is so important to keeping access to theatre open to the student community.
The motion proposes that the £5 ticket scheme be crowdfunded by the Fossil Free RSC campaign, but this is hardly reliable, and it is my opinion that once the initial publicity of the campaign has died away, it will become much harder to pay for the scheme via this method. Corporate sponsorship, while unpalatable to some, is a reliable and consistent means of subsidising access to the arts, in comparison to the potentially unreliable and risky alternatives.
Morality is not a game of absolutes; it is often an ambiguous and amorphous concept
This raises a further question of the moral issues inherent in corporate sponsorship. Detractors of this method of funding for the arts (and other non-profitable enterprises) claim that by accepting corporate money, recipient organisations are implicitly accepting moral culpability for the business activities of their sponsors. Thus, accepting money from a firm like BP entails accepting a share of responsibility for their purported ethical issues, as well as disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Perhaps I can offer an alternative view, however.
Whether or not one agrees with the behaviour and business activities of large corporations, why not turn some of their apparently copious profits towards projects that benefit us, like arts funding? Corporations will always seek to improve their public image through benevolent activities, and we should take advantage of this to improve access to public goods like theatre. Nor is this stance incompatible with opposition the negative aspects of corporate behaviour, or campaigns for changes in moral and ethical attitudes in the private sector. Morality is not a game of absolutes; it is often an ambiguous and amorphous concept. We can deplore some corporate behaviour while appreciating the benefits that corporate sponsorship provides to us all.
The reality is that this motion represents yet more political grandstanding from the SU
In recent years, Warwick has seen other moves against corporate involvement in university life, including a campaign to remove the BP archive from campus. Speaking as a student who benefits from easy access to said archive, this strikes me as a naïve and unhelpful stance. Similarly to the debate around subsidised RSC tickets, this situation seems to be one in which the moral misgivings of a minority of students are given greater weight than the benefits that many more derive from corporate involvement in university education. The reality is that this motion represents yet more political grandstanding from the SU, which is increasingly becoming distant from its duty to pass policies that genuinely advance student interests.