D&AD on the declining interest in higher education

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Exam results season is in full swing and while students up and down the UK come to terms with how they did in their all-important papers, they'll soon need to decide what's next on the horizon.

A recent report revealed that the number of students who think going to university is important has dropped by 10% (down to 65%) from last year. It follows a reported 6.3% decline this year in people choosing to study arts and design subjects at A-level.

Below, Hilary Chittenden, senior foundation manager at educational charity D&AD explains why less people deem it important to gain a degree and what creative companies can do to help.


Why do less people think it’s important to go to university today?

We see on a daily basis at D&AD how valuable those three years at university are for self-expression, discovery and honing craft skills, so paired with the 2.5% reduction in students being accepted on to creative art and design degrees, it paints a concerning picture for training emerging creatives.

From the cost of studying, to the perceived salaries at the other side and the well-publicised (lack of) government funding in creative subjects at school, young people are understandably questioning their career options, job prospects and course success rates.


Why are less people choosing to study arts and design subjects in particular?

Arts and design subjects can often still be perceived as ‘higher risk’ than an academic degree or a vocational course. I was on a train last week, sat across a mother and her two teenage children on their way home from a university open day. Mum was talking about the History course, but the son mentioned an interest in Graphic Design. “Graphic Design?! What on earth are you going to do with that?” they laughed.

It’s conversations like these that are all too familiar and highlight one of our industry's biggest challenges. The value of art and design can be easily misunderstood, and there is a risk that we are missing out on talent because the art in education is still stigmatised.


What are they choosing instead, and does it represent more opportunities than there used to be or just less importance on creativity?

With STEM subjects dominating the school curriculum and with the widespread adoption of EBacc, it’s a lot harder for young people to be aware of the options and follow through on a creative education.

However, this has also led to a rise of initiatives to help incubate new talent into creative careers and help young people gain a foothold in creative industries via opportunities that might have only normally been a result of an arts or a design degree. We established D&AD New Blood Shift four years ago with the belief that great talent can exist anywhere and shouldn’t always need a degree.


What will the cultural impact of less arts and design students be later on?

The creative economy is the fastest growing in the UK, so we need to build a workforce to keep up with this growth. And if we don’t create alternative options for people to enter creative careers, we risk losing diverse voices and opinions that are so needed in our industry.


What can the creative industries do to accommodate young people wanting to follow this career path but not necessarily via a degree?

Brands and agencies should challenge their preconceptions of what makes a recruit ‘qualified’ for a role. Soft skills and attributes like curiosity, collaboration, brave thinking, lateral problem solving, and resilience can be as valuable as, if not more than, the ability to use certain software.


Do employers still consider degrees to be the best qualification when recruiting or is that changing with less importance placed on university?

While employers are still rightfully recognising the merit, hard work and achievement of a degree, we have noticed that brands and agencies are increasingly open to discovering talent who don’t have formal qualifications, as they understand the obstacles that young people face.

We are proud to have some of those companies recruit new talent from D&AD New Blood Shift, with previous alumni having gone onto find paid placements at companies such as BBC Creative, Design Bridge and Apple.


Will the trend continue with less importance placed on arts and design uni courses?

I remain optimistic about the future, and hope the brilliant open letter by Rick Haythornthwaite, chair of Creative Industries Federation – co-signed by hundreds of huge names including our own Tim Lindsay – will be the start of a reinvigorated and collaborative charge against the arts austerity that threatens our industry.

While students entering arts and design courses may fluctuate over time, we must ensure alternative routes into creative careers are available so we don’t miss out on the brilliant talent we know is out there.


Hillary Chittenden is senior foundation manager at D&AD and heads up D&AD New Blood Shift, a free night school helping young people without degrees kickstart a career in the creative industries. Applications are open until Monday 26 August.


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