Thursday, 13 September 2012

# 110 Why I Think Art Degrees Are a Waste of Time (But Don't Quote Me On It)

In November I am attending an event in Lincoln called 'Careers in the Creative Industry - What Are We Going to Do?' It asks several fundamental questions of creative education and its place in Lincolnshire where I am currently based, namely:

What are the real benefits of a creative education?
Is having a degree enough and can Universities do more?
What are the options and opportunities for careers in the creative industry in Lincolnshire?
How can the wider creative industry in Lincolnshire support students and graduates and also benefit themselves?

There was a time when only academics went to University. English, Maths, Science - all these things required years of study to enable students to go out into world with grades they could essentially use to get teaching jobs or careers in very specific industries such as the medical profession.

And there was a time when all you needed to be good at art was talent, a bit of ambition and essentially, to be in the right place at the right time.

These days you have to be moulded into producing the kind of creative art that your university, college or school would have you produce based on theirs and its tastes, ideals and ultimately its remit. Unless you think on your feet and work your butt off outside of the course, you might be in for a bit of a shock.

Being creative used to be the luck of the few who had talent and they did their art based on their interpretation of the world, drive and ambition. This went for writers, fine artists, illustrators and designers amongst many others.

But in our modern world, apparently you are only as creative as the grades in your final year and your work can be and may be open to interpretation by a previous generation of 'creatives' who may have very different ideas to your own. This is flawed and I'm not just saying this because I came out with disappointing final grades in my degree.

For any student going into these areas (in my particular case - fashion) having ideas and direction of ones own means having to follow one of two lines of learning - to potentially risk getting poor results in the pursuit of your own way of working or to conform to the requirements of the course and probably not produce the work you are truly meant to. Twice I was advised to throw out ideas of my own and do what they wanted to see. But I've been in the industry many years now, how can I bow down like that and still be happy with the outcome? Particularly as I was already running my own business. As anyone who is creative will know, you cannot be told how to be creative. It just is what it is and you are what you are.

Perhaps that means I'm not cut out to be a fashion designer. I'm not sure about that one yet, only time will tell. But the results of my final year did leave me wondering what on earth I was doing.

Essentially the grades are of no use to me - I am already an established business owner with a niche market and I am never short of work. The  thing is that we are already over saturated with students studying creative subjects and there is not enough work to go round in the job market, that's for sure. Towing the line, fitting in, is unlikely to get you noticed. Branching out, being different, could be the only thing that makes you stand out from the crowd whether you got a third or a first in your final degree.

And university life in no way prepares you for the reality of being one of many many people without enough work experience or direction in an over saturated market. You don't have to look very far to find articles which pretty much say the same thing such as this from the Guardian in January.

According to the Office of National Statistics in March 2012 recent graduates are more likely to work in low skill jobs than a decade ago. Of course a cynic might say that encouraging students to attend university has nothing to do with degrees but about keeping youngsters off the dole, thus making Government figures look better than they actually are. It's another remark I hear often. As of March 2012 there were 1.50 million recent graduates looking for work. So what makes you stand out from the crowd? 

The percentage of recent graduates, people who completed a degree or
higher education qualification within the last six years, employed in
lower skilled jobs has increased from around 26.7 per cent
in 2001, or just over one in every four recent graduates, to around
35.9 per cent, or more than one in three recent graduates in the
final quarter of 2011.

Did I need a degree to do the job I'm doing now? Of course not. I went for the experience, because I had skipped Uni in my late teens, self taught myself and got a decent job in the real world to subsidise what were obviously going to be meagre pickings in the media sector. Do I regret it? Perhaps bits of it, such as my expectation that being older, wiser and more experienced would be an advantage. Certain aspects of it have been invaluable but the rest of it left me jaded. Picking up the pieces post Uni was hard at a time when I was finally going out on my own full time. 

Higher skill jobs generally require competence through post-compulsory
education whereas lower skill jobs tend to require competence only
through compulsory education.

Post uni, students find out the hard way just how important getting those first work experience placements are. By then of course, it's too late. No experience, no work - no work, no experience. It's a no win situation. Placements are encouraged, but not enforced on many courses and students easily slip through the placement net and come out with nothing but their education to show to potential employers and it just isn't enough. Even if those grades were high there's a good chance it won't make any difference. Degrees have apparently become easier and easier to obtain firsts in. And the recession hasn't helped. Graduate employment continues to fall year by year despite the grades going up and up.

Creatives should be learning on the job, not learning in a classroom. It was a sad day when YTS and Polytechnics ceased to exist. You cannot round people sufficiently in academic environments if you are a hands on creative. But with employers taking advantage of students desperation for experience and treating them like virtual slaves with long unpaid internships that don't even guarantee work at the end, it is going to take more than a change of attitude to sort this problem out.

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