With the government’s persistent focus on ‘value for money’ in the HE sector, and numerous reports declaring creative arts and design degrees ‘low quality’, you could be forgiven for thinking that taking a creative degree at university leads to destitution and ruin.
But new research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) demonstrates that if, as Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson suggests, “the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job”, then creative higher education is exceling.
The report uses data from HESA’s DLHE Longitudinal survey to assess a range of employment outcomes for graduates who studied ‘creative subjects’, which it defines as those subjects which map to a sector of the creative industries. The purpose of the report is to examine the link between creative higher education and work in creative sectors. It finds that creative higher education offers significant value to both graduates and the exchequer beyond simplistic measures of graduate earnings.
Notwithstanding the absurd anomalies in definitions of “graduate level jobs”, the PEC report finds that a higher proportion of creative graduates are in these roles six months after graduation than social sciences, history, geography, law, biology and psychology graduates. Three and a half years after graduation, the proportion of creative graduates in those graduate level jobs is still higher than the proportion of law, biology and psychology graduates.
We also find that when controlling for demographic, attainment and work-related characteristics, there is no statistically significant difference in the effect on average earnings between studying a creative subject and studying biology, languages, or psychology subjects.
These findings could be read as a strong case to reduce the numbers of biology and psychology courses. But that would be entirely missing the point. The metrics you use and the comparison groups you present will inevitably favour some subjects over others. As different subjects set graduates on different career trajectories, when we measure value through graduate earnings or graduate level jobs, we actually capture variation in industry structures, rather than the comparative worth of differing skill sets or the quality of the education provided to nurture them. Thus, it is necessary to incorporate, rather than erase, a sensitivity to sectoral difference when contextualising and analysing the relationship between subject choice and earnings data.
Essential to industries
Creative graduates are found to be just as likely to be in work three and a half years after graduation as any other graduate group. However, they are typically working in different sectors of the economy.
The majority of creative graduates are working in some kind of creative role three and a half years after graduation, either working in the creative industries or working in creative jobs outside of the creative industries. This demonstrates that creative education is producing graduates with the requisite skills to pursue creative careers.
We also find that though creative graduates make up only 17 per cent of the graduate population, they represent 46 per cent of graduates working in the creative industries. This figure is even higher in certain subsectors. For example, 82 per cent in architecture sectors have a creative degree. This overrepresentation of creative graduates in the creative industries shows how much the sector relies on the skills and knowledge taught through creative higher education.
This is hugely important when attempting to consider the value of creative higher education to the exchequer. The creative industries contribute £111.7bn to the UK economy, representing 5.8 per cent of the total UK GVA. While creative graduate earnings may be low compared to many (though not all) other subject groups, these graduates are making a significant contribution to the UK economy as the lifeblood of one of its fastest growing sectors.
With almost half of creative businesses already reporting skills gaps in their workforce, a reduction in the numbers of creative graduates now could have significant implications for the sustainability of the sector long term.
Not only are creative graduates finding meaningful employment in key economic sectors, but these jobs are likely to increase in the future. Based on pre-Covid estimates, jobs in the creative industries were predicted to grow twice as fast as the overall UK economy over the next four years. While creative graduates might not have been earning as much as non-creative graduates in previous years, by the time the current cohort graduates their skills are likely to be in even higher demand than those who graduated five years previously.
So if we take a more holistic approach to ‘return on investment’ and consider employment in integral, high-growth industry sectors we get a very different understanding of the economic value of creative higher education. And if, as Philip Augar suggests “higher education should be realigned with the country’s social and economic needs”, then surely government policy should be targeted towards encouraging students to take up subjects which are most likely to give them the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday.
For Love or Money? Graduate Motivations and the Economic Returns of Creative Higher Education Inside and Outside the Creative Industries by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) is available from the PEC website. A policy briefing also accompanies the report.