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What are creative arts courses?

With creative arts courses once again under fire for poor average graduate salaries, David Kernohan introduces this little understood part of the sector.
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s an easy, seductive, narrative about higher education creative arts courses. It’s not true, but it is pervasive.

The story generally goes that students choose to spend three years devising improvised theatre, learning the trickier end of their chosen instrumental repertoire, or exploring the possibilities of mixed media. While undeniably enjoyable for the students in question, this does not lead to any job, and such students therefore end up in non-graduate jobs with only regrets to keep them company.

What artists do

There are many inaccuracies here. Design studies is the dominant sub-specialism in the creative arts – a very vocational subject with a clear route to commercial employment prospects. Others may be studying cinematics, photography or related subjects – clearly beneficial skills in a media-saturated world.

But even those studying music, dance, or drama will not spend all day in the studio or rehearsal room. Many courses include aspects of business, finance and management – all invaluable for a creative professional that works, as many do, in a freelance capacity in multiple roles. A musician – for example – may teach, hold a job supporting community music, and compose library music for television and film… all this alongside membership of the ensemble or band that they see as their “primary” activity.

Even for those who do not decide such a precarious and poorly-paid set of roles is for them will – as most students do – have researched and written essays and reports, be able to present findings, and to plan their work and the work of others. There’s no shortage of employability skills in an arts degree.

The conservatoires

But there are a select few who primarily focus on their artistic practice. They will still get some provision in other skills – but the majority of their time in higher education will be spent in rehearsal or performance. They study at one of the UK’s eleven conservatoires.

An undergraduate course at a conservatoire still leads to a Bachelor’s degree – but the emphasis is different. Entrance is based on performance skill (or technical aptitude – conservatories cover the technical aspects of production, costumery, and arts management too). In many ways courses are very vocational (perhaps more so than other courses) – there will be strong links to professional theatre companies, orchestras, and other employers. Uniquely, postgraduates and undergraduates (and those entering “linked” courses) apply via the same UCAS route.

Conservatoire study tends to be:

  • individually focused, with an emphasis on personal development and a students’ own creative goals
  • concerned almost entirely with creativity and professional practice
  • providing training for a career in a profession – either in music, dance, or drama.

The difference between conservatoire courses and university arts courses is perhaps not as stark as it was, but it remains a very different experience and a very different tradition.

In all, there are around 6,000 students studying at a conservatoire, with a hair over 5,000 UK undergraduate applications in 2020 to the nine providers that feature in the UCAS conservatoires system. This represents a small reduction over a peak in applications over last year (due to a new conservatoire – the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – using the service only for the 2019 cycle). but numbers have risen by about 1,000 over five years. In size this is a drop in the ocean compared to wider arts provision – around 150,000 people study the creative arts in the UK.

These charts show the latest data on applicants to the nine UCAS conservatoires – eight of which offer music courses, three drama, and two dance. UCAS runs a separate system for conservatoires, allowing applicants to choose up to 6 to apply to. Applicants look similar to those who apply to other courses, predominantly 18 years old, from a non-disadvantaged background, and white.


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POLAR4 quintile (at age 18):

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But to get a full picture of the size of creative arts within the sector we need to look at wider provision. Courses outside conservatoires will have a wider focus on traditional academic work and less on performance. And design courses are a huge part of this picture.

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You’ll see that there’s not been an enormous growth overall – an expansion in cinematics and related subjects have driven what little growth we have seen. We’re looking at first degree undergraduate courses – and there’s a view by single provider and one allowing you to compare multiple providers in individual subjects on the tabs at the top.

A complex picture

When we dismiss creative arts in the way that LEO-derived data invites us to we are dismissing a very wide range of subjects and experiences. There’s nothing in the subject matter that inexorably leads to a poor graduate salary other than the poor salaries and job security on offer in the arts sector itself. Are there too many students studying these courses? It’s not easy to say what the right number would be. Artists tend to build portfolio careers – some of which many involve employment that is not considered appropriate for graduates. Ironically, it is this non-graduate work that is often supporting the valuable contributions to society that artists make.

5 responses to “What are creative arts courses?

  1. Most creative arts graduates are self-employed or running SMEs but this does not feature in the LEO data (based on HMRC PAYE returns), hence the fundamental flaw in the whole ‘value for money’ debate…

  2. Self-employment incomes greater than £0, as recorded on the self-assessment form to HMRC, are now included in LEO

  3. I am not sure the writer really understands or has much sympathy with the discipline set he is analysing – and I see he’s just taken a look at the campus novel too – perhaps he should stick to more mainstream wonk topics where his insights might be more informative to the readership. Creative arts is not something you learn about from an article or report, but something you live to your very core.

  4. I think it’s fascinating that creative arts course are always under such scrutiny, especially when you consider that ‘creativity’ is the most popular soft skill employers are looking for. In an age of increasing automation within the job market, surely we should be encouraging more students to follow their creative passions and promote this to ensure there doesn’t become another gap in skills to overcome. Surely the idea of ‘value’ lies with the student? I must say I don’t regret a single penny I spent on my qualifications (BA, MA & PGCE) even though they were in Dance.

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