Is creative education falling behind?

The government has been clear about the importance of the creative industries to the economy, but if it wants to support them, it needs to rethink the increasing lack of support for studying creative subjects, says Kingston University vice-chancellor Steven Spier

In late January, the Department for Education published no fewer than four papers affecting further and higher education, and the regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), has four consultations out. Most of the content did not make headline news, with the focus of the media more on the ongoing issues around home schooling. But there is only bad news in all of this for courses in the creative industries.

In the latest in a line of measures chipping away at the pipeline to industry of young, creative talent, the announcements included a change in the top-up funding for those subject areas that are expensive to deliver and deemed strategically important. Art and design courses were deleted from that list and not because they have become cheaper to teach. This inevitably makes it harder for universities and specialist institutions to offer them.

There are three big policy drivers threatening education for the creative industries. The first is that the Treasury is increasingly concerned so much of the money loaned to students for their higher education does not get repaid, and those in the creative industries are conspicuously delinquent.

The repayments schedule begins when one reaches a set salary threshold, and stops all together after 25 years. Since people entering the creative industries often begin as freelancers, or start their own firms, they will not reach that threshold quickly. And, of course, salaries in the creative industries are not generally high. (A recent study by NESTA confirms, however, huge job satisfaction – one of the few things the government is not interested in measuring.)

The Treasury is increasingly concerned so much of the money loaned to students does not get repaid, and those in the creative industries are conspicuously delinquent

The OfS has been enlisted to reinforce this problem by developing measures of course success based on absolute measures of graduate salaries. With the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming that, for men, completing a creative arts degree has a negative salary impact compared to not doing a degree at all, there is a real danger of the creative industry subject areas being swept into the government’s basket of ‘low value’ degrees.

The second big driver is an obsession with having more British people study STEM subjects. Attempts to have this broadened as STEAM have fallen on deaf ears, and schools and pupils are getting the message. The English Baccalaureate – which pupils have been encouraged to study since 2010 – does not include a single creative subject. Not coincidentally, there has been a decline in pupils sitting A-levels in creative areas. That they still exist in fee-paying schools helps mitigate these effects but reduces even further the scant ethnic and socio-economic diversity of art and design schools and of the industry. It is not long ago, though, that art and design schools were a common choice for working class students.

The third big driver is to increase the quality and attractiveness of further education – more specifically, of higher technical and vocational education. This is welcome; further education has been starved of funding. The danger is that some voices suggest this should be at the expense of going to university, when FE and HE offer different things. (There are even voices in the Department for Education asking if creative subjects need to be at honours degree level.) Clearly, we need both.

If one were being generous of spirit one could wonder if the different parts of government are joining up. How else to explain the disconnect?

This is all a long way from four years ago when it felt as though policy makers had woken up, heralding the creative industries as a key part of the government’s industrial strategy. Greg Clark MP, then the Secretary of State for Business, recognised them for what they are in the United Kingdom – world leading.

If one were being generous of spirit one could wonder if the different parts of government are joining up. How else to explain the disconnect between the economic importance of creative businesses and the support for creative education? The latest estimate, pre-pandemic, was that the creative industries contribute £11.7bn of gross value added to the national economy, which is greater than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined. It is also growing five times faster than the rest of the economy, according to DCMS figures published in February 2020.

Their importance has only grown as a result of the pandemic and, arguably, of Brexit. The UK will need to rebuild its economy and not only are its creative industries world-leading and fast growing, they also support innovation. This is why countries the government admires economically, such as China and Singapore, are increasing their emphasis on creativity in education. They want to add value by moving from ‘made in’ to ‘designed in’. Somewhere in government it must also be known that the creative sector is resilient to automation, and that jobs that require creativity are more future-proof. Nesta’s Creative Policy and Evidence Centre has confirmed that employers recognise the value of a creative education.

The danger is that continuing disincentives for schools and universities to offer creative subject areas will also impact the cultural industries. Especially outside the major cities, universities provide vital cultural infrastructure and offerings. This is mostly done on the back of courses in those subject areas. In a further policy disconnect, the government encourages the notion of universities having a civic role, which has certainly been proven true with their huge contribution to battling the pandemic. It also acknowledges, sometimes grudgingly, the importance of the arts for our wellbeing.

The danger is that continuing disincentives for schools and universities to offer creative subject areas will also impact the cultural industries

There can be little doubt that January’s policy announcements are further steps in undermining education for the creative industries, and thereby the pipeline of talent and British competitiveness in creative sectors and innovation. Kingston University, where I am vice-chancellor, is home to one of the country’s leading schools of art and design and I intend to galvanise a campaign to highlight how eroding creative education puts our innovative edge as a nation at risk.

During the coming months, I will be engaging with businesses to improve the evidence around the creative skills needed to drive the future of UK plc. I will also be showing different government departments how they are undermining industrial strategy and their mantra of ‘growing back better’. The next key date is the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn, so there is no time to waste.

Professor Steven Spier is vice-chancellor of Kingston University, and a director and spokesperson for the University Alliance on creative industries. Previously he was dean of the Kingston School of Art, and has worked in higher education in Belfast, Glasgow and Hamburg

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes