This article is written by external contributor, Charlie Duffield. She is a digital journalist and editorial communications manager, who currently focuses on the creative industries, human rights and young people. She developed her journalistic expertise as a reporter for The Santiago Times in Chile, and is interested in engaging younger audiences across multiple platforms. You can follow her on Twitter here.
With automation looming large and threatening our world of work, what’s the value of studying an arty, non-vocational degree? Subjects such as Design, Music, the Performing Arts and Fine Art, are often downplayed in terms of intellectual value, advancement in the workplace or economic prospects. Yet the creative industries are the fastest growing sector of the UK’s economy and account for 1 in 11 jobs – amongst the least likely to be lost to automation.
Increasingly, non-creative disciplines are also demanding the unique skills and mindsets of arts graduates. In our fast-changing world, here’s why creatives should be taken seriously, and why our ability to think in new ways has been grossly undersold.
Can we be creative at school?
In the infamous words of Pablo Picasso, “every child is an artist…the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” It’s a sentiment which still resonates; the most popular TED talk of all time is Ken Robinson’s ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ from 2006, in which Robinson makes an impassioned case that creativity is just as important as literacy.
Of course, the arts versus science – or fiction versus fact – narrative is frequently peddled to understand which discipline holds greater value in society. Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom, stated in Campaign magazine, “our education system…has driven the idea of a schism between art and science.”
From as early as primary school, it’s likely that we’ll be informally deemed either a creative earth child, or numerically adept whizzkid destined for a laboratory, before we’ve even learnt to tie our own shoelaces. This binary pigeon holing, and polarisation between subjects, is reductive. As Unerman argues, historic thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci transgressed these modern day divisions by revolutionising the worlds of both art and engineering.
Robinson claims that we need to rethink our view of intelligence by taking into consideration our interdisciplinary way of seeing things. He argues that we experience the world visually, through sound and kinesthetically; our brain isn’t divided into separate compartments. Creativity, or the process of having original ideas which have value, occurs when the different parts of our brain interact.
And yet, research from the Education Policy Institute tracked a decline in the proportion of pupils taking at least one arts subject at GCSE level. In 2016, it reached 53.5% – the lowest level for a decade. Alan Bishop, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation, cited the “devaluing of creative education” as a major threat to the sector’s ability to thrive. Furthermore, this September the Cultural Learning Alliance launched a new downloadable toolkit to make the case for arts provisions in local schools.
Likewise, in his TED talk, Robinson foreshadowed these trends: “We are educating people out of their creative capacities. Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects – the arts are at the bottom, and there’s even a hierarchy within the arts – Art and Music are given a higher status than Drama and Dance.”
Crucially, cuts to arts education do not just impact the creative arenas; they are, in fact, wide reaching.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers published the report ‘Big Ideas: The Future of Engineering in Schools’ in an attempt to rebrand the sector as a creative discipline. Sarah Spurgeon, president of the Engineering Professors Council, commented: “You need Maths and Physics to be a good engineer, but these are things we can teach and they are not all you need. We need students with the imagination to dream a better world and the skills to build it.”
A study of 200 civil engineering graduates in 2016 at the University of Bath proved this point. Those who studied Art and Design, Music or Design and Technology alongside their other subjects performed better, on average, than those students who had solely studied Maths and Science.
So, should we study the arts?
Last month the Head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman warned further education colleges of giving false hope to students by offering arts courses with unrealistic job prospects. However, earlier in February, The Financial Times questioned the government’s recent reforms which categorised science degrees as career-boosting, and the arts of low social value. Editorial director of the FT, Robert Shrimsley, argued that many basic technological and engineering functions – anything remotely rules-based – will give way to automation. In a dehumanised, dystopian society, we may need the creative arts more than ever.
In the HECSU (Higher Education Careers Service Unit) graduate destinations survey Pamela Kelly – careers advisor at the University of the West of Scotland – stated: “Perhaps to contrary popular belief, [the creative arts] is a rapidly-growing sector with a 4.9% increase in jobs since 2014 compared to a 2% increase across the UK economy as a whole between 2014 and 2015.”
The report goes on to dissect different arts disciplines, finding that Design graduates in particular are most likely to stay in the sector, with 46.6% finding employment in arts and design professions. According to a graduate earnings report released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this June, creative arts courses enrol 10% of all higher education students, but graduates can expect to earn 15% less than the average university leaver after five years of employment.
However, the most recent Creative Skillset Workforce Survey shows that the average income across the sector is £33,900. Whilst the immediate earnings potential of arts grads is low, in the long term they’re able to exceed the average national salary of £27,271.
The sector as a whole has experienced the strongest growth in employment in the last five years; new figures released from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in November show how the creative industries have grown by 53.1% since 2010, and contributed an impressive £101.5 billion to the UK economy in 2017. This is more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas sectors combined.
But what do arts students actually learn, and where do they end up beyond the cosy confines of university?
Kathryn Evans studied Drama at university and went on to run a business which turned over millions of pounds, before becoming an award winning Young Adult novelist. Her mother was so embarrassed she was pursuing a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject at university, she pretended her daughter was studying English instead. However, Kathryn credits her Drama degree for the confidence and adaptability she needed to launch a financially successful business, which eventually employed 140 people.
Kathryn told Debut Careers: “Drama is a misunderstood subject. I learnt how to make something from nothing, to think fast and problem solve under serious pressure. Of course I did learn to act, but I also learnt backstage skills like costume design and set building, as well as the practical economics of running a theatre. I learnt how to research, present an argument, manage events and communicate with the public.”
Initially Kathryn worked at Chichester Festival Theatre, before sidestepping into the management of her new business and taking the occasional acting job. Later, she channelled all she’d learnt about character into writing novels.
And yet, there’s no denying that science does sell, and it does pay.
Dr Emma Williams specialised in Physics at Cambridge University, and went on to manage the University of Cambridge’s Graduate Development Programme. For Emma, arts degrees aren’t useless as all students, regardless of discipline, have to sell and convert their academic skill set into an employer’s language. The distinction lies in the very real structural disparities which dictate the job market.
She tells Debut Careers, “Ultimately, big scientific companies have graduate tracks which offer paid employment and meaningful experience from the get go. Journalism, Advertising and other arts based careers offer underpaid (or unpaid) internships as a route to gaining experience. This isn’t an attractive prospect for any graduate owing at least £30 – 40k post degree.”
Is creativity valued in the workplace?
In Kathryn’s view: “Not everyone will go on to be highly paid in the field of their degree, but creativity is the number one skill companies such as IBM are looking for in their management teams. Creativity stems from play, and scientists and engineers also need to be creative,” she added.
And, she’s right. In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Future of Jobs survey – which quizzed 350 executives, spanning nine industries in 15 of the world’s biggest economies – creativity was the third most important skill desired by employers by 2020. It’s also jumped seven places since 2015, when it was only the tenth most important skill. In a world overloaded with new technologies, employers want creative people who can apply tech to emerging products and services.
Terry Neill, head of Accenture’s global change management practice, told the Irish Times in January: “More and more we’re focusing on arts graduates because of their ability to deal with complexity, to look at things in a different way. They also have a higher tolerance for ambiguity, which is important.”
Likewise, according to Dr Emma Williams, creativity is essential to science.
“Working as a scientist requires questioning, inventiveness, problem solving and discovering things that are new. Some universities such as Imperial College London link scientists with more arts based researchers, to stimulate different ways of looking at a problem. New perspectives are very important in the creative process,” she told Debut Careers.
She adds, “I also work with PhD students and postdocs on creativity in research, using tools from the enterprise arena – lateral thinking, brainstorming, canvas visual approaches and random input methods. Often these can unlock blockages in the scientific process. It’s not just authors who get writers block!”
In fact, our workplaces of the future will depend on the successful intersection of the arts and sciences. Accenture’s Paul Daugherty has advocated a direct link between creativity and computer science. Unless computer coding is taught in schools, it’s reported that up to one million STEM-related jobs will be unfilled by 2020. Creativity is the uniquely human strength which can bridge this gap.
So, to sum up…
According to arts graduate Am Golhar, who is now the director of Abstract PR agency: “There is still a stigma about art degrees, but, I think things are changing. There are good career and earnings prospects for arts students.”
With the World Bank reporting that job insecurity is now a fact of life for young people, our professional lives will be tumultuous and unpredictable. We can expect to change career five times over a lifetime, and those who berate arts degrees as impractical are ignorant of the fact that graduates go in all manner of different directions.
From theatre to engineering, and science to entrepreneurship, it’s evident that creativity matters. The transferable, ‘softer’ skills of arts graduates, and the ability to think differently, are more relevant than ever in our era of reinvention. The workplace clearly values creativity – perhaps it’s time our education systems – and societal thinking – caught up.