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The government's announcement of a major review of the National Student Survey signals a worrying shift in the HE regulatory landscape, warns Jon Scott, higher education consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester.
Statements from ministers this week have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.
Universities UK and GuildHE have commissioned the Quality Assurance Agency to develop a new approach to reviewing and enhancing the quality of UK TNE. QAA will consult on a new review method later this year and will launch a programme of in-country enhancement activity in 2021.
After a week of largely disappointing news for UK higher education, Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University, fears that gloomy forecasts for the future of the sector may prove to be uncomfortably accurate.
Loughborough University has been named University of the Year for the second time in three years in the latest Whatuni Student Choice Awards .
Recent reports on graduate earnings and value for money in higher education have suggested that those studying art and design are losing out, and there is speculation that the Augar review could recommend lowering the tuition fees cap for such programmes. But HE art and design leaders warn that a range of important factors, from more accurate information on graduate earnings and opportunities to the value of art and design industries to the UK economy, are in danger of being ignored or missed.
While the UK’s flourishing creative industries are admired around the world, art and design provision at university is facing major challenges. Degrees in arts and design are invariably found at the bottom of graduate jobs and earning tables and with policy makers focused on value for money, and the Augar review considering fees cuts, the apparent poor showing could have far-reaching consequences.
In the 2017 Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) statistical release, the median salary level for art and design graduates five years after leaving university was £20,000, putting it at the foot of the table, just below agriculture and related subjects and mass communications and documentation at around £22,000 a year.
A report recently published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, The impact of undergraduate degrees on early career earnings in the UK, even suggests that male creative arts graduates are likely to earn 14 per cent less than peers who did not go to university at all.
While the pay differential between arts and designs and other subject areas is not huge - graduates in 12 out of the 23 subject categories earned between £20,000 and £25,000, commentators believe that the main concern of ministers is whether salaries meet the loan repayment threshold of £21,000.
According to academics, the use of “unsophisticated” and “old-fashioned” salary data is doing art and design no favours. There are a range of freelance, flexible and portfolio careers in the creative arts, with their own career velocity, that are not picked up through HMRC and PAYE data.
“The ways in which official employment statistics are calculated are not appropriate to the creative industries,” said Dr Shaun Hides, dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at Coventry University . “One of the things that LEO data will struggle to capture are industries that have a built-in expectation of an additional internship/apprenticeship phase where to build your employability portfolio you are going to be working in low pay graduate employment until you become established.”
Although LEO now includes self-employment data, the IFS graduate earnings calculations in its latest report do not (the IFS said that despite this it was confident that the conclusions were robust).
There are other categories that LEO fails to capture. Many graduates working in the creative industries are registered as limited companies, for instance. They pay themselves a basic salary – which is what would be counted in LEO - topped up by dividends. In LEO terms, these people are low paid workers. As the BBC points out, tax status in the media industry is a complex area.
Equally, students who deliberately choose to work in non-graduate jobs that give them the time and energy to focus on their art are recorded within the category assumed to be made up of those who are desperate for a graduate level career.
Various league tables that use raw graduate salary data do not adjust for diversity of background and gender. There is no consideration, for example, of the lower median earnings of women, BME graduates and those from deprived backgrounds.
Neither does graduate salaries data take into account regional variations or the specificities of particular job markets/ careers or the importance of the creative arts industries to UK plc, which is estimated to be worth £90 billion a year.
Graduate earnings are far from the full story
Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, agrees that graduate earnings are far from the full story: “Seeing the arts in this way is not only woefully narrow- minded, it is ruinously short-sighted, ignoring the changing needs of Britain in the 21st century, a time when the vital skills students learn during an arts education will be more important than ever.”
The government-commissioned Independent Review of the Creative Industries by Sir Peter Bazalgette, published last year, was clear about the importance of the sector.
Creative industries provide twice as many UK jobs as financial services; music is one of the few net exporters in the UK; the video games industry is the envy of the world and UK companies own half the international trade in TV formats.
The Bazelgette report warned that this creative strength cannot be taken for granted as if it were an endless natural resource, and it needed to be nurtured through the education and skills systems or else the UK risked falling back as countries such as China move forward.
One of the biggest concerns is the “real and present danger” to the continued pipeline of students coming up from secondary schools and further education colleges, as outlined in the Higher Education Policy Institute report A crisis in the creative arts in the UK?
The omission of arts and design subject from the Ebacc, the GCSE school performance measure, means a narrowing of the curriculum at secondary level and a potential fall off at HE level over time.
“Whereas China and India are determined to push their creative industries, our educational strategy is going in exactly the opposite direction than it needs to be going and I don’t yet see much recognition on the part of ministers,” said Dr Hides.
Echoing Bazelgette, Professor John Last, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts and chair of the UK Arts and Design Institutions Association, argues that art and creativity is part of the UK’s educational DNA.
“If you break that up, you are in danger of breaking up the very successful arts and cultural scene in the UK,” he warned.
Creative arts and design are increasingly being acknowledged as an essential component of the fourth industrial revolution, with the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
Creativity, flexibility, adaptability and enterprise – all central elements of arts and design degrees - are among those skills that are highly resistant to automation.
“They are opening Arts Schools in China, just at a time when there is a threat to the art school in England and that is something that policymakers here need to consider,” said Professor Last.
Despite A&D’s importance to the economy, the prevalence of the discourse around science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects tends to relegate it to the position of poor relation.
Professor Linda Drew, Vice-Chancellor of Ravensbourne University, describes the concentration on STEM as seemingly the sole driver of economic growth and graduate success as “unhelpful” and one which “ignores the overlap and collaboration between STEM and the worlds of creative arts, media and design.”
Dr Hides agrees and says that in the world that is coming, the distinction between STEM and other subjects, or between science and the arts, is meaningless.
“Jaguar Land Rover talk to me about not just automotive and transport designers but product designers, fashion designers, and AR/VR immersive media designers,” he said. “A crude focus on STEM is missing the point. Why do we buy the iPhone? Not because its circuits are better but because it is better designed. Its intuitive interface design is better, not the intrinsic technology. That is massively telling for the future economy.”
One area that can be further developed here is the availability of degree and higher level apprenticeships. According to Sandra Booth, head of policy at the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD), while a fair number are available in film, media and broadcast technology, employers in other creative industries need to come on board.
But the debate about the importance of A&D is not just about the money, it is also about the wellbeing of a society that has a flourishing arts and cultural scene and the skills that it engenders in young people.
“Every child should have the opportunity to explore their passions whether they plan to pursue that as a career or not,“ said Booth. “Those skills of creativity are so important. We are losing our dexterity and haptic skills to the point where surgeons are struggling to sew patients up and we have a mental health crisis in this country. The pursuit of art and creativity could be the antidote.”
Providing courses to teach and foster this creativity is not a cheap option. In the run up to the publication of the Augar review, the art and design sector is wary of talk of fee caps or fee differentiation.
It points out that very general categorisations of “the arts”, which might include courses such as English and philosophy, are very different to the other end of the spectrum, where there are high cost degrees in film production, textiles and fashion, for instance. Running these courses takes expensive infrastructure and hi-tech kit.
“We are educating graduates to enter a set of industries that are highly digitised and highly modern,” said Professor Last. “It is not a cheap ecosystem but it provides the kind of education we are proud to produce.”
Currently, it is still an education that plenty of young people want to pursue.
UCAS application figures show that creative art and design is the fourth most popular category, behind medicine, biological sciences and businesses and administration. However, applications in the discipline were down by 4 per cent (June 2018 deadline), compared to a 2 per cent drop across all courses.
Nevertheless, Booth described recruitment as “still very buoyant”. Small specialist institutions in particular, are thriving. Recruitment at Norwich University of the Arts last year was up 12 per cent on the previous year, for instance.
Anecdotally, these courses have high levels of engagement and motivation, driven by students’ passion for the subject. Feeding in to this is the final year degree show - multi-media staged events and a celebration of output that is unlike anything offered by other disciplines and which fosters a powerful sense of community and endeavour.
As one of art and design’s many high-profile supporters, broadcaster and author Andrew Marr, puts it: “To invest in art and design means putting public money into areas whose value cannot be captured on a spreadsheet, where concepts like productivity, value-for-money, inputs and outputs - which so reassure the political world - simply collapse. That means faith. It means risk.
"But, without it, hard times surely stretch out rather bleakly. Other countries understand this.”
This HE Insight Paper was originally published on HEi-know on 10 December 2018
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