Stigma of leaving creative industries is harming careers of arts graduates


When I studied theatre in the late 2000s, I and the majority of my classmates were convinced that we would become celebrated writers, actors and directors. Ten years on, however, many of us are pursuing traditional arts careers, others have taken unexpected roles as researchers, communications strategists and project managers.

These alternative careers are exciting and rewarding and capitalise on the talents and skills we developed throughout our degrees. Yet, despite our diverse successes, when we meet, an unmeaning hierarchy besets us, as we collectively mourn the “failings” of the artists among our number who lamentably “sold out”.

And, as I return to my life as an academic, I find myself questioning why our culture accepts classicists running countries, but expects dramatists to wait for tables and big breaks?

It would appear that this culture is pervasive. New research for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) shows that the majority of creative graduates do find work in creative jobs after graduation. However, it also observes that while non-creative graduates view work both inside and outside the creative industries as equally desirable, creative graduates are far less likely to view work outside the creative industries as offering a viable career.

Why does this matter? Surely a majority of creative graduates finding employment in high-growth jobs and industry sectors is a good thing. This might be the case if it were not for the recent government focus on “value for money” in higher education and Department for Education statistics which find that creative graduates earn less than other graduate groups.

Of course, salary is not the only reason to pursue a career and graduate earnings are not an adequate measure of the value of a creative degree. However, the government’s persistence in measuring value through earnings data means subjects at the lower end of the graduate salary pay scale are squarely in the firing line if recommendations from the Augar review of post-18 education and funding are acted upon or if Covid-related government support for universities is made contingent on the dropping of “low quality” courses.

While our report finds there is no statistical difference in the effect on average earnings between studying a creative subject and studying, say, biology, languages, or psychology subjects, the government’s focus on “return on investment” places creative higher education under threat.

Within this context, creative graduates’ reluctance to pursue work outside the creative industries could, inadvertently, lead to a reduction in the provision of creative degrees. This is because our report also finds that, across subjects and industry sectors, graduates who take up jobs that they do not feel are good for their careers earn less than those taking the jobs that they want.

Consequently, as a sizeable minority of creative graduates do end up working in non-creative roles at some point in their career, their strength of preference for creative work may be leading them to take on flexible low-paid employment, avoiding opportunities for career progression, and distorting creative graduates’ collective earnings data as a result.

If this explanation is indeed accurate, it would suggest that creative graduates’ earnings could be significantly improved if they were made more aware of the viability and value they can bring to roles outside (as well as inside) the creative industries.

The skills creative graduates develop are not only valuable for the high-growth creative industries, but are uniquely future-proof and will be required by an ever increasing range of employers and industry sectors. Research shows that, across the economy, creativity and collaboration are the skills most sought by employers and creative skills are in highest demand in areas that are predicted to grow most significantly in the future.

However, a legacy of 20th-century specialisation means that many do not feel confident in pursuing work in sectors that do not directly match their degree. Part of this is because of the valorisation of STEM and the way in which creative subjects are portrayed as easy or hobbyist, leading creative students to feel that they lack the requisite ability to undertake work in other sectors. When this is compounded by positive associations with being “an artist”, it becomes even more difficult to disentangle your identity from the career you pursue.

Sociology graduates are not deemed “failed sociologists” if they end up working in industry or local government because sociology is recognised as offering knowledge and skills that can be applied to a diverse range of roles. However, the broad value of creative degrees is often overlooked.

Yet, if creative higher education is to be preserved, it is imperative that attitudes towards creative subjects and alternative careers change. The narrative of the struggling artist needs to be dismantled and replaced with a conception of creative graduates as highly skilled workers with the requisite ability and proclivity to find meaningful employment across multiple areas of the economy. Creative students should be actively supported to consider careers inside and outside the creative industries.

And creative educators must be brave and honest enough to admit that not everyone they teach will “make it” as an artist, but simultaneously insist that this uncomfortable fact in no way detracts from the value of the unique knowledge and skills that creative courses deliver.

Author Bio: Martha Bloom is a researcher at the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. Her research centres around skills and innovation in the creative Industries with a particular focus on the integration of arts and STEM.