Why are fewer students taking on art and design at university?

The latest figures from UCAS show 17,000 fewer students have chosen to take creative subjects this year compared to 2016. Designers and academics tell us why this has happened.

group of graduates

The number of students applying to university has dropped, according to the latest figures from UCAS – and this trend is particularly true of creative subjects.

Roughly 30,000 fewer students have applied for undergraduate university courses compared to this time last year. This includes all applications made before UCAS’ January deadline, so late appliers and those who get in through clearing are not counted.

A drop of 17,000 students

While Creative Arts and Design is still a popular subject group at 230,000 applicants – behind only medicine, biological sciences and business studies – there has been a drop of 17,000 students compared to last year, meaning that over half of the overall drop has come from creative subjects.

This covers courses in design, fine art, craft, music, drama, dance, photography and creative writing.

Tuition fees costing students £9,000 a year

The recent rise in tuition fees could be a trigger for this fall, say academics. In 2012 universities saw fees triple, with students now facing up to £9,250 per year to study in the UK. Scottish nationals who study in their home country are the exception, paying no fees.

The prospect of debt totalling at almost £30,000 is causing students to think carefully about their career choices, says Peter Higgins, creative director at Land Design Studio and an external examiner in undergraduate interior design.

“The pressures of tuition fees are kicking in,” he says. “Students seem more inclined to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects at university as they have more tangible, predictable career options, whereas art and design courses have a less predictable outcome.”

“The Government has moved away from supporting creative subjects”

The Government has given science precedence over the arts in recent years – chancellor Philip Hammond pledged £23 billion towards science and technology development in his 2016 Autumn Statement with little mention to arts funding, and prime minister Theresa May promised to develop the UK’s STEM and digital skills when outlining her industrial strategy in January.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) curriculum – made up of English, maths, science, a language and either geography or history – was also introduced for GCSE students in 2010, and neglects to include creative subjects. The Government’s aim is that by 2020, all GCSE students will be sitting the EBacc. Critics have said that the move devalues creativity, but the Government argues that GCSE students can choose arts subjects on top of the EBacc if they wish.

“The Government has moved away from supporting creative subjects quite alarmingly,” says Paul Ring, a senior lecturer in interior architecture at Northumbria University. “Because of this rhetoric, 18-year-olds are wondering about the value of creative subjects.

“The smashing of budgets for the arts, coupled with the fee increase and the fact that it’s now harder to get into university as students need more UCAS points, means studying creative subjects is becoming a risky choice,” he adds.

The significant decrease in those pursuing an arts route spells trouble for UK businesses, Ring adds. “Studying creative subjects develops important transferable skills and creates confident, communicative, lateral thinkers,” he says. “Creativity is not just for the un-academic – design students are exceptional problem-solvers. We risk losing that.”

“You don’t need a degree to be a designer”

And for those students who have not been discouraged from going into design and the arts, there are cheaper alternatives to university available. Sana Iqbal, a recent Graphic Design and Illustration graduate from Liverpool John Moores University and a graphic designer at consultancy The Storytellers, says that undergraduate degrees could be experiencing a drop because students are deciding to pursue design through other means.

“I feel there is a move towards people just teaching themselves – doing short courses, using fantastic YouTube videos and going straight into a studio as an intern,” she says. “You don’t need a degree to be a designer. You can see the difference in quality between someone who’s gone to university and someone who’s done a short course – but people may be put off by the debt.”

“Savvy students think twice about where to invest”

Deborah Dawton, CEO at the Design Business Association says that the steer towards less academic routes into design is not necessarily a bad thing as it could bring up the standards of existing courses as they look to compete.

“Good further education alternatives will get you into the industry at an appropriate level,” she says. “Savvy students will now think twice about where to invest and I hope this results in poor design education at university-level being a thing of the past.”

Brexit may have caused a drop in EU students

The Brexit vote could be another cause of the drop in applicants, with less European students now choosing to study in the UK. Applications from European Union (EU) students across all subjects have dropped by 7% to 42,000 according to UCAS, while applications from other overseas countries has stayed relatively the same at 53,000.

“Brexit has damaged the European market but not the wider market of Asia and the Middle East,” says Higgins. “We used to get students from Scandinavia, Germany and Italy and there was a cultural empathy between UK and EU students.”

He adds that the “short-term” mentality of universities means that they opt to give places to non-EU overseas students over home students as they pay higher fees – but educational institutions should be trying to encourage UK students to study art and design too.

“Overseas students tend to return to home countries, and compete with us on a global scale at a very high standard,” he says. “We need to rigorously attract home-grown students. There needs to be more art and design fairs for colleges and sixth forms.”

“Creativity is under attack – but there’s still resilience”

Iqbal adds that schools need to do more to encourage young people to embrace creativity, such as including trips to art studios in the curriculum and inviting industry speakers to come in. “For me, going to a grammar school didn’t actually help me, because it was very academic and aimed at Oxbridge and nothing else,” she says. “The focus was on medicine and law.”

But Ring adds that despite all the obstacles for budding designers – including increased tuition fees, lack of Government support and a loss of EU students – it is hopeful that Creative Arts and Design is still one of the most popular undergraduate choices.

“Although creativity appears to be under attack, there’s still a resilience,” he says. “It’s heartening that students still want to be inventors and makers, and improve society through creation – but that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem.”

Did you study design at university or did you take an alternative route into the industry? Let us know in the comments section below.

Hide Comments (35)Show Comments (35)
  • Catherine Scott February 6, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    ‘fewer’ students

    • Sarah Dawood February 7, 2017 at 9:29 am

      Thanks for the comment Catherine, we spotted this too and have amended. All the best, Design Week team.

      • Catherine Scott February 9, 2017 at 11:19 am


        • Drew Peacock May 8, 2017 at 3:25 pm


  • Emma February 7, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Let’s be careful ‘bandying around’ phrases like ‘You don’t need a degree to be a designer’ It’s a derogatory statement for those that DID get a degree. A ‘short course’ and ‘YouTube tutorials’ don’t make you a designer.
    It’s time, learning on the job, experience and dedication that make do.

    • Kim February 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm

      Yep – 100% right! Short courses are there to keep you up to date and ahead of the game. You have to have the excellent grounding first. A degree with a year in industry before your final show would be ideal – and I think with access to flexible times and remote lectures available online it could be done in three years.

  • Mark H February 7, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Maybe design courses need to sell themselves in a more business like way. Prospective students are much better equipped to research the returns from an arts versus a “professional ” STEM course. If you love art you will find time for it whilst earning a good living from engineering or programming. After all, you can enjoy playing amateur football even if you cannot make it in the premier league.

    The appeal of art courses is great, but debts of £30,000 plus for a freelance job paying £20/hr outside London versus £50/hr full time as a developer? Maybe a good thing to have less arts graduates, make entrance harder etc to create a shortage of supply…

    • Maria Morris March 1, 2017 at 6:15 pm

      £20/hr?!……..Where where?! I’d like that please. I’m an academic at a Uni teaching design, 18yrs experience and I’m not paid as much as that.

  • James Souttar February 7, 2017 at 10:40 am

    The sad reality is that the UK’s creative industries don’t provide great career opportunities – certainly not worth the £73,290 that getting a degree in one of London’s art schools will cost. Notoriously there are far too few openings for too many applicants, pay at every level is low, opportunities for progression are scant, the hours are long (and overtime is unpaid, often resulting in less than minimum wage earnings), management is frequently bullying and unprofessional, and there is very little job security. And that’s for employees. Freelancers can easily find themselves in ‘precarious employment’ without the means to afford pensions or savings. All of which is made far worse as London becomes unaffordable.

    And then there is the sad fact that the UK’s creative industries are just not that creative any more: they’ve become consultancy led, with numbers mattering much more than aesthetics. Designers are very much second-class citizens in the contemporary agency ecosystem compared to strategists and client managers, and business advantage is given far more emphasis than aesthetics (which is a cultural thing: Napoleon famously lampooned us for being a nation of philistine shopkeepers, but it’s much worse now than it ever was before). Added to which, there is Brexit, about which what can I add? As if the sector wasn’t exposed already, the country went and voted to marginalise itself on the world stage.

    I certainly wouldn’t advise any prospective student to consider design. But – smart kids! – it sounds as if they’re already figured this out for themselves.

  • Kim February 7, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    I am from the days when PMT was a camera. When Apple Macintosh replaced the drawing board, I went back to uni for 6 months; quite a few of the people that I knew in the business decided to start again doing something else. Then clients wanted everything done with Macromedia Director. Back again for another course as others dropped away. Websites, digital ads and email marketing became increasingly popular. Off I toddled to do a postgrad. Short courses, although costly, have given me more in the long run than a degree. Long before the last recession I was chuckling at the ads in the creative press : “Ten years experience, degree preferred, repro knowledge, must be able to retouch using photoshop, typographic skills, hand drawn visualising skills essential, fluent in javascript, html, css, ruby an advantage…in our great studio…we have our own cafe! And an M&M machine! A place to put your bike! We’re in the West End! We can do you a season ticket loan! £18K per annum! I’m not surprised universities take this “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” attitude and have joined the greedfest. So the last bit of learning I did was building skills – I work from a cabin that we constructed in the garden. My clients are wonderful and I love my work. Being a creative is and has always been enjoyable – but I did seriously envy dinner ladies at certain points in my career. Before I became independent I worked for some Grade A shits, slave-masters and bullies that hopefully, if still alive, have gout. Perhaps I have PMT again…

    • Sam February 21, 2017 at 8:33 pm

      A PMT was a ‘photomechanical transfer’ produced by a stat camera was it not?

      I’m a 1985 graduate with a traditional graphic design education. No exposure to the Mac until 1989. I would not enter an equivalent program in 2017 if I were choosing an area of study. I actually don’t know what I would pursue.

      Everyone’s a ‘designer’ these days. And a singer. And a chef. And an interior decorator. And a personal trainer… and on and on…

  • Lee Rice February 7, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    I studied Product Design at University, and graduated in July ’16 with a First. As of yet I have not been offered a position – despite my best efforts; I’ve completed a design placement to get experience, done well in design competitions to get noticed, and have actively scoured the UK for Graduate level roles without success.

    Would I go to University, given what I know now, to do a course in Design? Financially, on almost every level, no.

    Personally – Yes. If like many creative careers you decide to pursue a passion, then money, or financial success, is rarely a factor, sure I need money – that’s a given with almost any endeavour, but I don’t want to align ‘success’ to landing a career in a “Best Paid Graduate Jobs” profession.

    “Why are less students taking on art and design at University?” I agree with James Souttar’s comment; “Smart Kids!” If they’ve weighed up the financial pro’s vs. con’s, backed by the information in this article, why would you?!

    But, however, maybe that will discourage the less-passionate, in what is a (seemingly) extremely difficult industry to get into, that is perhaps already at the brim, on the back of a generation that is experiencing a [insert preferred disaster – Financial/Economic/Brexit etc.etc.] aftermath.

    Perhaps most careers, creative or otherwise, that fall outside of the catchy STEM drive are insanely hard to break into. Perhaps it’s just me? Perhaps what we need is Smart Kids – but, smart kids that are driven by passion, that can challenge convention, and cultivate change; Financially Smart & Passionate Kids.

  • an-aesthetic February 7, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    The real answer is because they are taught nothing whatsoever on degree courses.

    • Kim February 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm

      True – although the critiques with the tutor who loved the sauce shouting his ethanol breath all over us was great preparation for the world of advertising.

  • Raksha February 8, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Looking back, I don’t think I learnt as much as I could have in uni.
    I think I would have rather chosen some sort of part time course with an internship, or apprenticeship.

    I learnt more in two years of working both as an intern and junior then in uni.
    HOWEVER, a lot of principles and foundation learning, only really made sense after working many years. Like a lightbulb moment where things come together. And I would say, this is only because of my innate passion for design. For someone who is in the artistic field because of a paycheck, or has become jaded over the years, I doubt they would have made the same connections and had epiphany moments such as this. (Or perhaps would, but not care about them?)

    Would I suggest going to university for the young passionate design generation?
    But perhaps part time, or apprenticeship would be more beneficial.

    This however comes from someone who still goes back for short courses, and online courses. (You can never learn enough in todays expanding technology and idea lead age)

  • RitaSue Siegel February 8, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    When I see an article that equates art and design as equals in the headline, I am very troubled. I can understand not signing up for either as a major in higher education, but although they used to use some of the same tools, art and design are TOTALLY different. Readers who have investigated the subject know that design has to satisfy many requirements: function being one of them; whether 3-D physical products, interior design where the walls have to stand up and be fireproof, and communications design where a message has to be delivered so it is understood and accessible in a variety of media. All of these have digital ramifications and more and more products are digital, as in apps, or have digital integrated or embedded in them. Where is the overlap with art? Would this article have been written differently if this perspective had been considered? Although generalizations of this type will not hold up completely, I don’t see that those interested in the subject in the US would use design interchangeably with art. Here design students want to help change the world. They are driven to collaborate with other disciplines in the schools or universities that have upgraded their curriculum, (very few I admit.) They expect a variety of ways to access information. They expect internships.

    The tuition costs in both countries are outrageous.

    Design Week is the gold standard for information about design in the UK. It must aim to educate all the constituencies that refer to it as an authority and continue to have opinions! (In my opinion).

    • Sarah Dawood February 8, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      Hi Rita,

      The reason we have spoken about art and design together in this piece is because UCAS pools related subjects – and therefore statistics around applicants – into groups. Creative Arts and Design is UCAS’ subject group containing design, art, craft, music, drama, dance, photography and creative writing, and unfortunately this is as specific as their statistics are around applicants. UCAS currently does not have any specific figures relating to university applications from students taking on design courses only. However, if you look through our archive, we frequently write about educational issues relating specifically to the design sector.

      Design Week team

  • Ben Weeks February 11, 2017 at 2:48 am

    There are demographic changes.

  • Anthony Sully February 12, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    I started teaching interior design in 1976 and my view of the present situation is this: Over the years student numbers have increased in design NOT due to demand by the professions but by the sheer expansionist empire building craze that universities have undergone, made worse by the disappearance of the old independent Art School with hands on practitioners teaching, into the false elevated status of degree level courses with the emphasis on academic achievement and no risk of failure. These courses have developed a theoretical gobbledegook distancing from the real craft of designing. Made worse by the selfish accumulation of research driven staff and plc money chasing corporate universities. Hence the scant contact teaching hours of about 2.5 hrs per week and required attendance of the equivalent of about two days per week so that the students can get part time jobs to help pay these exorbitant fees. This appalling state of affairs feeds back to the young aspiring design pupils at schools, and is aggravated by the rapid disappearance of our Foundation Art courses which was the ideal route for future studies. It does not surprise me that numbers of applicants are falling but that can only be a good thing. To be an artist and designer is a highly established and specialised field of study that only a few are equipped to carry out – never mind the quality of the teaching. Not the vast numbers that have been churned out in the last 30 years, many of whom should have chosen alternative studies as witness the lack of employment prospects for these graduates. So I conclude we need to shrink these course numbers to a realistic figure that matches demand and available talent. We also need to get rid of those add-on courses like Design Thinking, Design Leadership etc. These fulfilled part of the crazy empire building tactics of universities. Finally I would advise a revolution of all those serious minded, talented and devoted teachers to break away from these plc machines and reestablish the independent art school.

    • an-aesthetic February 13, 2017 at 10:19 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. Bring back skills and expertise, connoisseurship and aesthetics, dump the issues, political correctness and conceptual deceit.

  • Richard McConnell February 12, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    As someone who trained in design in the era before the independent art schools were forced into the university system, much against their will, the present situation is a catastrophe, with students getting a poor deal at huge expense. British design has long been the envy of the world, but few of our political leaders have any awareness of this.
    This wonderful lead has been thrown away by successive governments, nearly all dominated by grammar and Oxbridge graduates who have no awareness of design as an important contributor to our economy. The Schools of Design were the first part of the education system to be fully publicly funded because the Victorians realised the importance of high quality

    • Anthony Sully February 13, 2017 at 5:54 pm

      Well said Richard.

  • Stuart Mantell February 13, 2017 at 8:43 am

    For most of us a design career is underpaid and short-lived. I’ve seen loads of ads for designers that require a degree but offer £17K and once you hit 40 that’s it, career over.

  • Kindred Studios February 28, 2017 at 11:55 am

    We, at Kindred Studios, offer free schools studio tours of our broad and eclectic mix of creative practices to inspire the next generation of young makers. The direct contact between our makers talking about how they work and what to expect visibly fires our young visitors’ imaginations. We need more studios like ours!
    This exposure is essential- without it, we may very well continue to watch the decline of our most precious heritage.

  • CHEESECAKES February 28, 2017 at 8:36 pm


    • Kate Gilbert August 21, 2017 at 5:50 am

      Exactly! Never used my degree. Left uni went back home got a supermarket job for money. Very little creative industry in my area and couldn’t afford travel to London to do free work experience. Those who leave uni with a job have family in creative industries or enough money to chuck at it.

      • Charlotte February 16, 2018 at 4:04 pm

        You clearly didn’t want it enough then because I can promise you, If you have the determination to have a successful career in the creative industry then you can make it happen. Money and connections don’t make you a great and hireable designer.

  • Philip Wood March 3, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Christopher Frayling in his lecture at the craft study centre in 2016 pointed out that almost 50% of art/ design courses had closed in the last 5 yrs and questioned where the next generation of craftsman/woman would come from. The problem stems from the inability for institutions to spend the tuition fee on tuition and students are simply not getting a proper level of teaching for the fees they pay. Insufficient weight is given to the basic tenant that was used when degrees in art and design were established, expressed to me by Victor Margrie, former Director of the the crafts council, namely ‘ the research of ideas through making’ The operative word being – through.
    Too much weight is placed on ‘generating ideas’ separated from making and too little weight placed on learning levels of skill with which to convert ideas into reality. It is probable that the central reason for this is two-fold firstly it is less costly to teach and secondly the decision makers hail from the world in which ‘book’ work / the written word is seen as having greater academic value than ‘hand’ work.

  • Phoebe Daneman October 17, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Just read your comments about the Degree route.
    I am from an era where we had PMTs in the studio and I worked my way up until I needed to get a degree to be able to get onto the Multimedia bandwagon. I have had to reinvent myself several times over in Web/Graphics/e-Learning Environments.
    There are a lot of companies who do design by Microsoft Office and think that this is design!!! They are not willing to pay designers a decent wage and also as one gets older they discriminate about your age despite your wealth of talents.
    I am now doing a Masters to enhance my skills for enjoyment. I want to work as a consultant from home and be able to give advice to people who really want it.
    The courses are good but as a comment mentioned the short courses help you if you want to learn the latest skills for jobs needing WordPress/Articulate/Captivate. Degree courses won’t teach you these skills.
    Also to get experience, you need to do unpaid internships which are soul destroying as you are just the tea person in the office and hardly learn skills. When I left university I was lucky as I was a mature person with a background of working skills and the new degree. But so many of my contempories had to work for nothing with design companies and sometimes it paid off and other times it didn’t. Many of them were still living with parents and that was helpful with no salary. But I wouldn’t have been able to have sustained myself like that as I had a 3 year daughter and a mortgage.

    My suggestion is find out what the degree offers and does it give you decent placements which will hold you in good stead when you are applying for jobs.
    Also go into detail about the skills you will learn on the course. As a lot of tutors don’t give you the time of day as they want to focus on their own research.

  • Andrew Bishop November 15, 2017 at 12:55 am

    It will steadily decrease as people are more connected than ever now. Its easy to tell that creative subjects don’t pay well but still require a lot of risk and skill.

    People can more easily get recommendations from existing graduates in there family or friend circle and see what subjects lead to the kind of lifestyle they would like.

    Graduates are likely to recommend apprenticeships and work experience over degrees as placement years are a struggle to secure, but the most valuable part of a degree when employing new staff/ new graduates.

    It’s often better on a CV to have 1 years of work exp than 3-4 years of uni.

  • dawn tate September 1, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    I have a 2:1 BA in Community arts and design but never been able to use my degree even though it enables me to teach varies age groups in the community and its a level 6 qualification it is not recognised as an equivalent to a level 3 PTLLS qualification so I cant teach adults for a tutoring role for a educational company. Not much I can do with it really apart from start my own business in the local community teaching art classes and there is no funding for the arts these days. I also hold a level 4 primary teaching qualification and completed the primary arts specialism but its not equivalent to a CTLLS apparently so cant tutor in the life long learning sector. I am all round disappointed I did enjoy university though.

  • Adam Hughes October 9, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    I think this is due to the fact that most students are starting to engage in information technology. Now it is considered that the most promising profession is a programmer and experts in the field of artificial intelligence. And it is only natural that such professions as designer, artist, architect, etc., become less popular with time. I believe that in order to make these professions more popular, you need to use modern technologies that will help make learning more interactive and interesting. After modern technologies are introduced into curricula for architects and designers, I am sure that there will be much more specialists in this field. Well, unfortunately, there is a big gap in the wages of workers from these industries. My friend is a programmer in https://papercheap.co.uk/, and gets much more than the writers in this service. So when the wage gap between these industries will be reduced to zero, then the popularity of these professions will increase significantly. Thank you for sharing this interesting article!

  • John Sharp October 23, 2018 at 11:10 am

    They are not willing to pay designers an OK wage and furthermore as one gets more established they segregate about your age in spite of your abundance of abilities. I am presently completing a Masters to improve my aptitudes for pleasure. I need to fill in as an advisor from home and have the capacity to offer exhortation to individuals who truly need it. The courses are great yet as a remark specified the short courses encourage you in the event that you need to take in the most recent abilities for occupations requiring WordPress/Articulate/Captivate. Degree courses won’t show you these https://www.essaychamp.co.uk/ aptitudes. Additionally to get involvement, you have to do unpaid temporary jobs which are soul wrecking as you are only the tea individual in the workplace and scarcely learn abilities. When I exited college I was fortunate as I was a develop individual with a foundation of working abilities and the new degree.

  • Tracy Hoggard December 18, 2019 at 9:21 am

    I like it When I exited college I was fortunate as I was a develop individual with a foundation of working abilities and the new degree.

  • Gladys Nelson January 19, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    He adds that the “short-term” mentality of universities means that they opt to give places to non-EU overseas students over home students as they pay higher fees – but educational institutions should be trying to encourage UK students to study art and design too.

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