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.