Demonstrating the value of the humanities and creative arts - 14 June

Tom Lewis 21 June 2023

The Chair, Daniel Zeichner MP, opened the discussion by raising recent reports from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Lords Digital and Communications Committee that were pertinent to the discussion. He explained that as an MP representing the Cambridge constituency, this topic was hugely important for the local economy and offered great opportunity.

He proceeded to welcome the panellists:

  • Sarah Cowan (Head of Higher Education and Skills Policy at The British Academy)
  • Dinah Caine (Chair of Governing Council at Goldsmiths, University of London)
  • James Purnell (Vice-Chancellor and President of University of the Arts London)

Sarah opened her remarks by outlining the focus of The British Academy on Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts for People and the Economy (SHAPE) disciplines. She explained the three priorities of the recent Academy strategy on:

  1. Strengthening and championing the social sciences and humanities.
  2. Mobilising the disciplines for the benefit of everyone.  
  3. Opening up the Academy.

She proceeded to describe the economic, social, and cultural value of the disciplines. She explained that the HEPI report acknowledged the UK’s strategic advantage in this area which could be seen in the success of EU framework programmes and impact on the Net Zero agenda, vaccine rollout, and creative industries.

Despite the widespread benefits, Sarah said that there seemed a greater onus on the disciplines to articulate their value. This was as a result of the current rhetoric on value being narrowly focused on economic factors. She said the Academy were mobilising to demonstrate the wider benefits of higher education including societal and cultural, as well as the skills that graduates gain. Sarah explained that there was a ‘myth-busting element’ to this work but also raised the importance of ‘elevating the debate’ to change the conversation around value.

Sarah covered two areas of value that the Academy has produced research on:

  1. Value to the economy
  2. Value to students

On value to the economy, Sarah considered the skills demand/supply. The Skills programme run at the Academy had conducted analysis on the skills that SHAPE brought and forecasted changes in the demand of skills in the economy. She noted forecasted skills shortages in fine arts and creative industries and the economic cost of not addressing supply. She called for greater examination of the relationships between supposedly ‘low value’ courses and the impact they had on thriving economic sectors. She highlighted that 4 of the 5 most innovative sectors were employing more SHAPE than STEM graduates and outlined the value that Netflix had placed on employing SHAPE skills.

On value to students, Sarah said a more inclusive definition of value would better capture the contribution of graduates from all disciplines. SHAPE graduates have 7 of the top 10 annual wage growths and while starting salaries were lower, their progression was stronger. SHAPE graduates were also more versatile in the labour market and more resilient to economic shocks. Students on SHAPE courses also value their disciplines and record similar levels of satisfaction to other disciplines. On widening participation, Sarah pointed to design; creative and performing arts; and media, journalism, and communications courses, which have the highest proportion of students recording disabilities – including cognitive – and mental health conditions, as well as playing a notable role for students from POLAR 1 and 2 backgrounds. She warned of the consequences that the ‘low value’ rhetoric would have on widening participation efforts.  

Dinah briefly explained her role as Chair of the Goldsmiths Council and a former member of the Creative Industries Council.

She noted the timely nature of the discussion, given the publication of the Creative Industries Sector Vision. The headline of the announcement was the plan to grow creative industries by £50bn and support 1 million additional jobs by 2030. She proceeded to quote endorsements from the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport to evidence the support across government for the creative industries.

Dinah explained the importance of creative skills for industries. She highlighted the 2 million jobs available, 5x growth rate compared to the rest of the economy and said a third of the shortage occupations listed by the Migration Advisory Committee were relevant to the creative industries. She said the work on micro-clusters by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre was interesting in its civic and placemaking opportunities. She explained the high degree of matching between creative courses and employment.

Dinah raised the importance of using the latest data to understand shortages in the creative industries and inform evidence-based policy. She said the Department for Education (DfE) had failed in this respect and held a historic view on the sector. Dinah noted that research work produced for DfE, which particularly shone a light on the pay returns to white males on arts courses shortly after leaving university, had an undue level of influence on DfE policy and decisions. This was particularly problematic as the data utilised at the time was collected shortly after leaving university and did not count freelances or setting up a startup. Dinah further explained that courses relating to creative practice were described as non-strategic for the purpose of the Teaching Grant. They have had 50% reductions to the top up grants for teaching high-cost courses and had lost access to applying for capital projects.

The negative rhetoric also had consequences for perceptions at schools and informing career choices. She called on universities to work collaboratively with schools to support the talent pipeline.

On the role of universities in research and development (R&D), Dinah highlighted the need to deliver teaching into impact more quickly. This also meant seizing on opportunities for adult learning through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).

Concluding her remarks, she said the UK was working to become a science superpower, but the UK was already a creative power.  She stressed the interdisciplinary links and called on the divides to be removed.

James outlined his role at UAL and drew on his experiences in the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).  

He explained that when DCMS was reminding government or writing documents, other departments would support the initiatives. However, when other departments were initiating policies, humanities and creative arts were often overlooked. He explained the long-term nature of this problem and reiterated the importance of not taking the disciplines for granted.

On the demand for creative skills, he explained a recent encounter with an entrepreneur who highlighted the need for industrial designers. He noted that policymakers could draw on the talent pool from creative art institutions to support the skills demand.

James proceeded to examine how the case could be made for value. He highlighted that the conjunction of science, technology, and creativity were the most exciting areas. He noted an issue with the data including the B3 measures used by the Office for Students. He explained that measuring outcomes 15 months after graduation could not capture the prospects for students in these sectors. He also suggested elevating the argument to demonstrate the wider value of such disciplines beyond their economic value, citing the shift to creative pursuits through COVID lockdowns.

On the crackdown of ‘low value’ courses, James said it would be ‘frustrating’ if it was singling out creative degrees. He said all universities cared about quality but reiterated that outcomes should not just be economic. He noted the loss that UAL made on domestic students to demonstrate that universities were not ‘international service businesses’.

James said UAL was interested in widening opportunity for different types of students including the expansion of online learning provision.