The fall in student applications could devastate the UK’s creative economy

The changes to student finance, the promotion of STEM subjects through the EBacc and visa issues for international students are all discouraging potential students from realising their talents by following a creative arts degree.

It is now clear that the hoped for "bounce back" in university applications has not happened in creative arts courses, which could lead to a further drop in enrolments in 2013. This is nothing short of a tragedy because the changes to student finance and the introduction of full-fee loans is discouraging potential students from realising their talents by following a creative arts degree. 

The reduction is more than a personal loss; it will be a loss to the UK’s creative industries and arts sector. More, it is a loss to other sectors which employ arts graduates because they are creative, enterprising, critical and independent.

Just a few years ago, many of us thought the longstanding links between UK creative arts education and creative industries and the strengths of this country’s creative sector had finally been recognised. However, either by accident or design, it feels from my perspective as the Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), that memories are short and it is once again essential to make our case to government and indeed to prospective students.

In itself, the changes to student finance would be challenge enough, but when combined with that of international recruitment caused by real and perceived visa issues, and the potential introduction of the EBacc that promotes the importance of STEM subjects at the expense of the creative arts, universities like mine are potentially feeling the breeze from an impending perfect storm.

It is vital that we reaffirm the links between our form of education and the strengths of the UK’s creative economy. We need to make it clear that the success of this sector is intimately related to the 175-year history of art and design education in this country. It needs to be recognised that there is no incidental relationship between what happens in creative arts institutions each and every day and the international strength and recognition the UK has across art, design and media – movingly and repeatedly recognised in the cultural aspects of our incredible Olympic Games this summer.

Each and every day we teach students how to be creative and enterprising, by asking them to produce work for which there is no prescription, by requiring them to work individually and collectively in an environment of studios, workshops, galleries and libraries, supported by project briefs, lectures, seminars, crits and exhibitions. Most importantly, students engage with staff – who are themselves working within the arts sector and the creative industries – and the student is formed by a rich diet of industry led collaborations, projects and competitions.

While the content and outcomes have changed hugely, the core challenging experience of the environment and its real engagement with industry and the world beyond the campus has been remarkably stable for more than 100 years – and it works.

So, it is frustrating to be required to make the case repeatedly that what government wants in terms of real engagement between universities and industry is happening within creative arts institutions and has been for more than a century – there is a model of great practice that should be recognised rather than left to suffer from uncoordinated policy initiatives from different government departments.

The recent announcement that creative arts colleges at Norwich, Bournemouth and Falmouth are to become universities is great, well deserved and long awaited – but this is just window dressing if the real threats facing creative arts higher education are not addressed.

So, what needs to happen? Schools need to be judged on the quality of their creative arts provision, providing this formative experience for every child and not only those from families who can afford to buy it after school. The government then needs to make it clear to prospective international students that they are welcome and integral to the university experience of home students who need to understand other cultures and develop international ambitions. And finally, more needs to be done to protect small specialist institutions across the disciplinary spectrum who simply may not have the resources and flexibility to withstand the current perfect storm.

At UCA we recently heard that yet another graduate from our BA in Animation had been nominated for an Academy Award – Chris Butler for ParaNorman – and if he wins he will be the fifth former student to win an Oscar. The tragedy is that we are just about to undermine this possibility for the creative stars of the future.

Simon Ofield-Kerr is Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA)

A still from "ParaNorman" by Chris Butler, a UCA alumnus, which has been nominated for an Oscar.
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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser