Two datasets tell very different stories about the state of Britain’s creative industries, graduate talent and prospects.
While ministers and the press see one set of numbers as a tale of “roaring” success, they see failure and grounds for possible regulatory intervention in the other.
Creative arts higher education was criticised last week for providing “poor value” for money, with the (now former) minister Sam Gyimah promising a “relentless focus on quality” and that the Office for Students would act swiftly to hold universities to account.
The headlines shouted about the results of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) research on graduate salaries, which shows that by the age of 29 “Male creative arts university graduates are paid 14 per cent less than those without a degree” (as The Sun put it).
Yet the following day, the creative industries were hailed by ministers for exceeding the £100 billion-a-year mark for their contribution to the UK economy.
Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, declared: “Our creative industries not only fly the flag for the best of British creativity at home and abroad but they are also at the heart of our economy.” The sector has been growing at twice the rate of the economy since 2010, the DCMS said.
Wright added that ministers were “doing all we can to support the sector’s talent and entrepreneurship”.
The spillover effect
How do we square this circle of thriving creative industries with failing creative arts education, as ministers appear to suggest?
Analysis by London Economics in September concludes that longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) data as used for the IFS research does not capture the “spillover effects” of working in industries such as the creative arts, where the economic impact of an individual can stretch far beyond their earnings at a particular snapshot in time.
According to the London Economics report: “The average gross salary earned in the arts and culture industry stands at £30,789 per employee, while an additional £42,420 in gross salary per employee was accrued elsewhere in the economy as a result of these spillover effects … generated as a result of the purchase of goods and services through the extensive supply chains supporting the arts and culture industries, as well as the expenditure of those individuals working in these industries.”
The same spillover effect is true for other professions, such as nursing, teaching and social work, London Economics rightly observes. But the crucial difference is that no one argues these degree-level subjects “are unworthy of continued public funding or that individuals entering these professions should be required to fund their own studies.”
All too often, the individual benefits of creative education are cast as being intangible rather than economic – it’s all about personal fulfilment and cultural benefits rather than financial. Yet, at a macro-level, these are booming industries. What is the cause of the disconnection between the two?
Creative arts education
Anyone working in the creative arts will find the IFS report sobering in its comparison of graduates’ early career earnings in different disciplines but perhaps not that surprising.
Yet, they would not see a negative story about the quality of HE.
When the results of the 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) were first announced, of the thirteen specialist institutions that comprise the United Kingdom Arts and Design Institutions Association (UKADIA), seven were awarded a TEF gold, five silver, and one bronze.
Eight of those institutions received single or double positive flags for graduate outcomes, whether for highly skilled employment or further study. If you read the TEF panel’s qualitative assessment, you will see evidence of each institution trying to align teaching and course design to industry practice and requirements.
The labour market
Instead, the real story told by these datasets – and the root of the disconnection between the micro and macro views of the creative arts – is about the characteristics of the creative industries’ labour market.
Paid internships and unpaid work experience are common, as is freelancing and portfolio working, with graduates trying to juggle multiple roles before finding a permanent post in their chosen field. And this is the point at which the IFS snapshot of graduate salaries is taken.
According to an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report published last year: “The sectors commonly understood as creative industries … have the highest concentration of internships available relative to job vacancies, including publishing, film and video, creative arts and entertainment, and broadcasting.”
The IPPR rightly flagged the implications for diversity and social mobility.
Without a personal network that opens up professional opportunities, or the financial means to take a few months of unpaid work experience or an internship at the minimum wage (often in London), not every graduate will find the creative industries an easy labour market to enter.
“The fact that internships are so prevalent in the creative industries is concerning, because the creative workforce lacks ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, particularly at entry level,” IPPR said. “If internships without measures to ensure equal access are common, there is a risk that the diversity of the sector will suffer.”
And that is where ministerial attention and university lobbying might be better directed.
The evidence suggests that the standards of teaching quality in most creative arts institutions are outstanding. Likewise, the evidence suggests that graduate talent fuels the global success of the creative industries and their growing, multi-billion pound economic impact.
The real question for the industry, HE institutions and ministers is how to ensure that those with talent have the opportunity and support to enter this labour market and prosper.