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Is our creative future at risk?

There's much more the government could do to support the creative industries, a new report argues. Michael Salmon digs into the need for change in substance as well as tone
This article is more than 1 year old

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Government negativity and neglect towards the creative industries is harming this important sector, a new select committee report argues.

And the DfE is a prime offender:

The Department for Education’s sweeping rhetoric about ‘low value courses’ is unhelpful […] The Department for Education, in providing strategic direction to the Office for Students, should change its approach to ‘low value courses’ to take better account of the realities of work in the creative industries. This should take more detailed account of business lifecycles and freelance work.

Degrees in creative disciplines may not lead to stellar short- and medium-term graduate outcomes – but talking them down has the potential for real economic harm, the report from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee argues.

The report seeks to demonstrate that the creative sector is an “economic powerhouse” as well as a key cog in the levelling up machinery. And the committee has got a point here:

More than one in eight UK businesses are part of the creative industries, according to 2019 figures. The sector accounted for £115.9 billion – almost six per cent of the UK’s entire Gross Value Added – in the same year.

But, we’re told, the UK is being complacent. Brexit has caused endless headaches. And the sector’s health is not being best served at the moment by policymakers.

The committee wants more careers advice for schoolchildren to promote creative sector professions. It notes that apprenticeships – flavour of many months for careers advice – are poorly suited to many creative businesses “due to the short-term, project-based nature of much work in the sector”, and the report endorses the “flexi-job apprenticeship” model which is currently undergoing piloting.

The committee also welcomes the DfE’s Unit for Future Skills, but wants concrete government plans for the collection and use of skills data – including for freelancers, a tricky issue – in the creative industries.

Narrow and restrictive

There are a whole suite of recommendations for departments all across government. For BEIS, there are suggestions on tax relief and research funding. For the former, we hear that the government’s definition of R&D for tax relief purposes is “narrow and restrictive”, and should be changed to better include the creative industries.

R&D metrics fans will probably be aware of the international divergence around what counts and what doesn’t, but the report lays it out for us:

The UK explicitly excludes arts, humanities and social sciences R&D from the definition of R&D eligible for tax relief. The OECD definition of R&D, upon which many member states base their tax relief policies, includes arts, humanities and social sciences R&D.

This is also something the British Academy has been pushing hard for. There’s an open consultation on changes to UK tax relief for R&D, so – perhaps – there is hope in this area.

The committee also slams the decision to discontinue funding for “the most successful parts” of UKRI’s Creative Industries Clusters Programme, claiming that it is “exceeding co-investment expectations by 600 per cent”.

Scarcely featured

Another recurring theme in the report is the spread of responsibility for the health sector across different government departments – DfE, BEIS, and the Treasury, in addition to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – and a mismatch in priorities.

There’s a similarity here to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s excellent inquiry into UK STEM last autumn, where important policy matters were found to be divided between government departments with different objectives, with no overall strategy to address specific problems.

But what distinguishes the creative industries from their STEM counterparts is a lack of government interest and attention – while for those pushing for better science and technology policy-making can (justifiably) feel frustrated by a lack of joined-up government, at least they can be confident that politicians will broadly endorse investment, and promote and amplify their concerns.

The creative industries do not benefit from the same support – as the report says, “the creative sector scarcely featured in the 2022 Autumn Statement and was not included in the Government’s five priorities for growth”. No surprise then that the report is at pains to make some comparisons, pointing out that the creative industries account for more of GDP “than the aerospace, automotive and life sciences industries combined”.

Tone alone

Changing the rhetoric is one thing – and where we’re talking about careers advice, there’s a clear case to be made. But this isn’t just an issue of rhetoric – if it was, the UK’s science sector wouldn’t be facing so many problems of its own.

When it comes to higher education, the concept of “low value courses” is increasingly baked into the regulatory system, rather than just being a question of ministers moderating the tenor of speech-making and resisting the allure of easy headlines.

Understanding that careers in the creative industries “take time to generate higher salaries”, as the report urges, puts the creative sector firmly at odds with DfE and OfS’ desire to measure degree value for money with short- and medium-term graduate outcomes – and so is far from a simple fix.

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