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Crafts Council

Craft and the policy and pipeline problem in craft higher education

Lauren England blogs about the double whammy for craft higher education of falling student numbers and threats to the value of craft courses

Lauren England
Twitter: @england_le

There is a disconnect between policy and creative education whereby recent policies have been advocating for the creative industries as an economic growth sector (worth £92bn GVA and supporting two million jobs) whilst simultaneously devaluing creative skills and failing to acknowledge disinvestment in arts education.

Participation in arts GCSE subjects has fallen by 25.6% over the last five years, 14,000 fewer students took creative subjects at university level in 2017 compared with 2016, and craft HE provision has fallen by 50% since 2007/8. The decline has been associated with the introduction of educational performance frameworks in schools and universities, negative perceptions of the value of arts education among pupils and parents, ongoing debate around ‘value for money’ in higher education and a political emphasis on STEM over STEAM. This rhetoric is manifested in the policies and recommendations outlined in the Industrial Strategy and Creative Industries Sector Deal which prioritise digital skills and maths education as means of developing the talent pipeline, whilst failing to address national disinvestment in arts education.

In the higher education sector, the proposal of a system of differential tuition fees determined by economic measures of ‘value for money’, as suggested by Damian Hinds on the launch of the Post 18 Education Review, inherently disadvantages creative subjects and also fails to account for the wider contribution of higher education (creative and non-creative) to society. There are stark contrasts here with the Robbins Report (1963) where it was stated that 'it is just not true that the total return on investment in education is measured adequately by the same yardstick as investment in coal or electricity’.

I argue that these recent policies and positions are indicative of an ideological denial of the value of creative education and creative skills. Whilst conducting research for my PhD on craft undergraduate education in England I came across some key challenges faced by craft educators in relation to this social and political discourse.

  • Falling student numbers and challenges in promoting creative pathways as a viable career option to students and their parents
  • Students requiring more foundational skills development in the first year of their degree due to a lack of engagement with resistant materials in schools
  • Poor measurement of craft graduate careers and ‘success’ by metrics such as the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey or Longitudinal Employment Outcomes (LEO) data
  • Negative messages presented in government policy and the media regarding employability in the creative industries and raise awareness of the transferability of creative skills to students and employers
  • Difficulty demonstrating economic efficiency in a square-metre per student measurements given the high space, material and equipment costs of courses alongside their small student cohorts
  • Managing the amalgamation or closure of degree courses, downsizing facilities or threats to workshop space, and a decline in contact hours dedicated to skills-based teaching

The political disconnect and the issues highlighted here create a talent pipeline problem at both ends that is detrimental to the development of the skills and material knowledge needed for innovation, the creative application of craft knowledge within and outside the sector, and economic growth.

There is an undeniable passion and will to support creative education in the UK, and growing evidence of resistance among the creative community. However, localised or extracurricular activities cannot be sold as the answer to the systematic removal or downgrading of arts in schools and higher education, both of which threaten the prosperity of the creative economy and the ecosystem of the creative industries.

We need more research into the impact of disinvestment in arts education in order to develop evidence-based narratives around the value of creative education and creative skills that can be used for policy advocacy. This argument needs to be made to government ministers, change makers and sector stakeholders with the power and will develop creative, industrial and educational strategies that recognise the true value of craft and creative education to the UK’s creative ecology and economy.