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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.

A still from "ParaNorman" by Chris Butler, a UCA alumnus, which has been nominated for an Oscar.

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)