The creative arts are in crisis in the UK. At school level, arts A-levels, including creative writing, are being dropped, while the new Ebacc prioritises Stem subjects. For universities, the increasing focus on graduate salaries as a measure of success is undermining courses in the creative arts. However, it is crucial that we protect creative education – it provides the skills our knowledge economy will need in a future where jobs will be increasingly automated.
These points were all highlighted in a recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) paper on the crisis in creative arts in the UK. It warns that fewer pupils studying arts subjects translates to fewer options for creative subjects at university level. The problem is exacerbated by the disincentives for universities to offer creative arts courses: low graduate salaries in the creative industries harm their performance in the teaching excellence framework and in new longitudinal data on educational outcomes.
HEPI’s arguments chime with my own experience. Over the last four years, I have been investigating this area – first as a course leader at Central Saint Martins, and more recently as co-director of Art School, a new organisation set up to improve arts education.
To address this situation, we need to rethink how we approach arts education at all levels to improve graduate outcomes. So what can universities do?
Collaborate more closely with the arts industry
This is difficult, since the two sectors work at different paces, with universities typically lagging behind. Partnering is important, however, since it gives students the confidence that they can be a part of the industry.
There are some good examples. Orange Tree theatre’s new MA in directing is run in partnership with St Mary’s University, and Manchester University’s MA in screenwriting has been developed with film producer Tanya Seghatchian, who has credits on the Harry Potter films. On the MA in dramatic writing I run at Central Saint Martins, the course is taught with 11 industry experts including John Yorke, who created the BBC Writers Academy; Kate Rowland, founder of the BBC’s new writing department; and Ola Animashawun, who developed the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme.
Make the most of the university’s role as a thought leader
Universities can act as incubators for creative ideas through artistic residencies, which can in turn generate exciting new work that feeds into their courses.
Warwick University is a great example of a university supporting companies, such as China Plate theatre studio, to develop ideas. Similarly, at Central Saint Martins, there is a fashion partnership with LVMH and, on the dramatic writing course, we have created a lab to allow companies to explore new ideas in partnership with students, providing space and resources for exploration and experimentation. In the US, Pig Iron theatre company was in residence at Yale School of Drama, trying out new ideas and developing work with students, to the benefit of both sides.
Improve the transition from studying to working in the arts
There’s a need for targeted schemes which ease the transition from a course into the arts industry. One good example is the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, which has recently launched a directing workshop aimed at supporting entry into the indsutry for directors who are female, BME or have disabilities.
There’s a particular problem in this area for women, since some studies suggest that far fewer work in the arts than study them. Over 70% of students at the University of the Arts London – Europe’s largest arts university – are female, but only around 30% of artists with solo shows in major London galleries were female in 2016. There are similar statistics for female playwrights and directors.
Collaborating on festivals can help students make useful contacts and gain experience. Two good examples are Winchester University, which runs the Winchester Writers’ festival, and Birmingham University, which holds the National Writers’ Conference with Writing West Midlands. At Central Saint Martins, students work on London Writers’ Week as part of their writer as producer module and, in return, get to attend the week’s events for free.
Work on campaigns
With their combined weight, universities and the industry can work together to shape government policy on the arts and improve the profession – such as calling for tax breaks for artists.
They can also run outreach campaigns. At Central Saint Martins, we have recently launched the Student Guide to Writing series, which is aimed at widening access to professional guidance on playwriting.
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