Social transformation and the ‘traditional University education’.

Creative higher education is in a state of flux and the perceived value of ‘traditional University education’ has shifted. As Alec Bec pointed out when launching Its Nice That’s careers platform, Creative Lives in Progress, it is now “just one of a myriad of ways to get into creative work”. But is the value of University education really just about enhancing career progression or should we have bigger ambitions for publicly funded learning? It is important not to forget the value that Higher Education has in enabling social transformation beyond employability and that we need to understand its importance as a tool for rebalancing the economic inequality and cultural hierarchy that is so damaging to our current situation.

The economic impacts of COVID, alongside the University sector’s lethargy in adapting to the evolving employment market, have led many to question the return on investment that higher education represents. Sadly, a three-year degree (particularly in the creative sector) is increasingly something for the privileged few — an optional extra for those that can afford it. Platforms like Creative Lives in Progress have expanded into the gap left by the inadequacies of the state sector and have evolved to support the talent pipeline into our creative industries. Whether it be socially responsible initiatives like the Creative Mentors Network, online networks such as The Dots, publishing platforms like Intern Magazine or private training providers such as the General Assembly or Shillington College, in the brave new world of creative education there are now lots of options to choose from. All of these are fantastic initiatives, but will they really nurture the depth of talent that our industry requires? And, more importantly maybe, can they enable the kind of social mobility that we so desperately need? It is clear that it is necessary to widen the range of support that is available to aspiring creatives and many of the options on offer represent excellent starting points, but should we be framing these them as an alternative to the traditional degree, particularly, for the disadvantaged. Social transformation requires a longer tail and as with many things, maybe it’s more productive to think in terms of and rather than either/or.

Real career mobility is not enabled by quick fixes or the acquisition of a set of professional skills. More often than not, it requires a shift in lifestyle, circumstance and mindset. To frame the benefit of creative education purely around job shaped candidate creation is as deeply flawed now as it has ever been, particularly for the excluded and underprivileged. The transformation of a three-year degree is unique in its ability to change context, and in doing so open new possibilities. I know this because I have lived it. As a teenager I watched someone having their back ripped open with a Stanley knife and knew I needed to be somewhere else. Like many young people growing up in the wrong bits of the inner city, I realised that in order to escape my toxic situation, I needed to change my context. I needed to escape the cynical immediacy that surrounded me and feel the idealism and possibility that is the real USP of Higher Education. It was only by stepping outside of the environment that I was born into, that I was really able to do this. My creative education felt like opening an Aladdin’s cave. A richer and more nuanced world of possibility. A more poetic place, a place where I had permission to be unrealistic. A space to dream alongside other dreamers. An opportunity to escape the cynicism and the need for immediate reward that was the real disadvantage of my upbringing. Working in schools, FE Colleges and Universities since, I’ve met lots of young people like the teenage me. I’ve seen the blight of kids who have never wanted for possessions but, driven by a need for instant gratification, are starved of the confidence to explore the things that will provide more lasting fulfilment. Interview skills, a better CV and industry mentorships will all help these kids, but they won’t transform them. The confidence to believe in their imagination and the realisation that life is about more than A+B=C, is what drives real social change.

The problem here though, is that for many in 2021, ‘traditional University Education’, is very far from the three-year immersion described above. Many Universities keep teaching contact to a minimum and have embraced a financial model that encourages popular courses to recklessly over recruit. This, alongside a cynical manipulation of data metrics to influence league table positioning, has pushed transformative learning to the bottom of a very long list of other logistical priorities. Add in poor financial management and HR systems that disable institutions from recruiting educators able to keep pace with rapidly evolving skillsets and you have a pretty broken system. Unfortunately, the people most harmed by this unfolding scenario are those without alternative support networks or access financial resources that will help them circumvent the inadequacies of their education. Despite flag waving initiatives around inclusion, diversity and widening participation, many institutions do not adequately support students from non-traditional background. These students have the unfortunate habit of hampering their effort to position themselves favourably within University League tables.

Unfortunately, this is the realpolitik of the current landscape.

Despite all of this, it is vitally important that we do not blame the model of the three-year degree for the way that this model is currently being administered. Higher Education can be more flexible & dynamic but only if we embrace a radical change of culture. We need to better utilise new technology and its ability to support new kinds of learning communities. To be much more proactive and determined in the creation of safe spaces where every voice is valued. (I mean EVERY voice, even the difficult and disruptive ones — even the ones that we do not agree with). To create spaces that have no need for tokenism and initiatives around ‘widening participation’. Spaces where educators feel comfortable to push, question and challenge. We need to reach outside of our institutions and onto the estates and be more relevant and dynamic. We need to connect with industry practice, but also have the confidence to question it. To provide an environment where commercial stakeholders can experiment with and learn to understand the ideas of each new generation. To do this we need better mechanisms for measuring the value of the education we provide. Metrics that do not promote elitism and a Research Evaluation Framework that does not perpetuate the same voices and the same kinds of practice. Metrics that encourage and support new kinds of learning and different kinds of learners. We need to have the confidence to prioritise the creation of dynamic and exciting learning experiences as the core element of our business, and understand that if we do this the financial stability that Universities need to survive will naturally emerge.

As I’ve said, a good university education is transformative. It is an opportunity to develop a more productive mindset, an attitude that will provide fulfilment beyond that of salaries and careers. We need to shout from the rooftops that higher education is about much more than gaining a set of skills to provide the immediate gratification of an income. It has the power to create citizens able to build a more prosperous society, but more importantly it has the power to ensure that these citizens will build a society that is fairer and more tolerant. The value of Higher Education should not be defined by finance, and access to it should not be limited by financial means. It is too fundamental to human wellbeing. To enable the disadvantaged and excluded to access it, we need to find more sophisticated ways to manage and distribute the considerable income of the University sector. If we do this with the intelligence that has made our world beating creative industries so resilient, I am confidence we can create an educational infrastructure that might provide benefits for all.

I’m aware that this all sounds a bit unrealistic, but as I said earlier, my ‘traditional University education’ taught me to value an unrealistic dream.

Enhancing creative Higher Education through partnership and collaboration. Learning with industry.