“Britain is a creative leader because its schools generate people with an amazing ability to innovate and to stimulate,” says Carrington. “There is an incredible amount of confusion in the minds of some newspaper editors and politicians as to what studying a creative subject really means. The narrative about the instrumental value of a degree in terms of earnings defines outcomes in a very simplistic way.” Artist and activist Bob and Roberta Smith RA explains that “the value of any kind of education is not directly financial – although it can be. The value of education is to create an innovative, informed, democratic, robust and varied society.”
According to the Creative Industries Federation, 35% of creative workers are self-employed. “In many respects, these graduates are leading the way to the future of work, making a living that is less traditional but much more creative, mobile and fluid,” says Booth. “In the years after graduation, they might be working as freelance artists or designers on a project-by-project basis. They may be working part-time in cultural organisations and businesses, in order to fund their arts practice, or starting up creative enterprises from scratch, or doing all of the above at once.”
Recent analysis by LinkedIn revealed that the most in-demand skill for employers posting on their site in 2019 has been creativity. Creativity and the Future of Work, a report by the innovation charity Nesta, states this demand will increase markedly over the next decade; while many tasks will be taken over by artificial intelligence, creative roles will thrive. “A lot of other jobs for which we’re training people in universities – which have generated reasonably good incomes over the last 50 years – will no longer exist in the same numbers,” says Carrington. “Our students develop a level of critical thinking, creative thought and innovative imaginings that, if you think about the way jobs are changing over the coming years, is exactly what society will need.” He points out that UAL’s newest college is a Creative Computing Institute, which “looks at the interface between artificial intelligence and the creative process”.
“We build creative thinkers and creative do-ers,” says Sonia Boyce RA, a professor at UAL. “Unexpected solutions are the gold of art schools – you don’t just follow a formula, you are encouraged to think beyond the limits of any one context, to think beyond limits. You’re not looking for consensus, you’re looking for the edges of things, the question marks about things. As well something that is pleasurable and gives pleasure, that is a very transferable skill.” Creativity and the Future of Work argues that, when combined with social and technical skills, creativity will have huge agency in the future economy, for many emerging settings, disciplines and industries in addition to art and design.
This interdisciplinary spirit is incubated on courses across the country. “People think art education is a deep focus on the individual, which it is, but it also supports great collaboration,” says Juan Cruz, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art (RCA). “Students want to be engaged in science, they want to harness the potential of robotics, they want to think about new materials and work with people from other disciplines.” This was true of Whiskey Chow, a Chinese-born performance artist who graduated from the college in 2017 and is now Co-President of its Student Union. “I collaborated with a product designer at college, as well as a jewellery designer – her work fits to the human body and I was using my body as a material.” She recalls that the performance art students would often receive proposals from other departments, including the college’s fashion designers and architects, exploring ways to collaborate.
One word that comes up often is resilience. “Because our art students learn through experimentation and failure they develop a mental resilience, an ability to deal with adversity and uncertainty, that is precisely what society needs,” says UAL’s Nigel Carrington. “Other countries can see that’s such a strength. One of South Korea’s political ambitions is to develop a much more vibrant start-up community, but they have a very high-pressure school system that doesn’t train their students to have the capacity to fail and pick themselves up. So they’re investing vast amounts of money in their creative universities precisely to generate that creative impulse that they need to complement technical excellence.”
“Studying art is a process in which you don’t know the outcome,” explains Eliza Bonham Carter, Curator and Head of the RA Schools. “It is the opposite of ‘teaching to the test’, which doesn’t build resilience in people – instead it builds reliance that if you conform, you will succeed, and that is problematic. I wonder whether the lack of agency it gives children is part of the cause of the levels of anxiety and depression we see among young people. I wonder if they don’t feel in control because they’ve never been given the opportunity to find their own way through a question.”
“Art is the only subject I know that when students walk in the door, they are the subject,” says Brian Catling RA, Emeritus Professor at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. “We ask students about what their dreams are, what their imagination is and what they’d like to be, and then we, the tutorial staff, attach a series of programmes, ideas and mechanisms to help them find its articulation. It’s to help them find their own language, not to give them one, not to force one on them, not to make them jump through the hoops of other people’s ideas. Sometimes art students are not great academic achievers at school, but they can’t help thinking, can’t help making things – they have something to say. Art school offers them belief.”