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Fix the pipeline for STEAM talent in the creative economy

The UK needs to address a systemic problem in the UK’s education system, namely its disciplinary silos. There are some 2.6 million jobs in the UK’s creative economy, growing at around three times the rate of the workforce as a whole. These are – in the main – high-skilled, knowledge-intensive and resilient to future automation. Employers are crying out for talent with a mix of arts and science knowledge. Government should remove the perverse incentives that currently riddle secondary education deterring young people from combining arts and science subjects, and reward universities that succeed in developing rigorous, multi-disciplinary courses valued by industry.

50 years after C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, we still have Two Cultures

The English education system has long had a reputation for favouring disciplinary specialisation over multidisciplinary diversification. C.P. Snow had much to say about this in his famous 1959 Rede lecture where he despaired at the growing chasm between the “Two Cultures” of the Arts and Humanities on the one hand, and Science on the other.

More than fifty years later the same concerns are being voiced. For example, Google’s Eric Schmidt picked on the English obsession with forcing young people to specialise in either Arts or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Maths) subjects in his 2011 McTaggart lecture. More recently, the former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, acknowledged that “When you hear about students going to study in the US, often one of the reasons they cite is the breadth they’ve got in a liberal arts course or the opportunity to combine a major and a minor. We need to allow people to pursue a wider range than is usually available in the UK. The English system is unusual in specialising so early, both at A-level and university.”

The evidence is clear that students are opting for one of the “Two Cultures” at school. 

In 2012-13, only 8.4% of students combined Arts and Science disciplines in their AS-levels. An analysis of what combinations of subjects were chosen at A-level by students in 2011 shows that only 2% (2.7%) of the overall number of students taking A-level in Physics (Maths) also took an A-level in Arts & Design (Fine Arts), with the percentage even lower for boys. When looking at the A-levels studied by applicants for different university subjects in 2011, we see that only 8.4% of students accepted for Creative Arts & Design undergraduate courses had taken Maths A-level, and only 5% of those accepted for Maths and Computer Science courses had studied A-level Art and Design.

C.P. Snow described such polarisation as an intellectual loss, and also a creative and a practical one, since “the clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures—of two galaxies, so far as that goes—ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity that has been where some of the breakthroughs came”. Although these risks of relinquishing economic gains affect all industrial sectors, they are particularly acute for the UK’s creative economy, where value is increasingly generated through the fusion of science, technology, arts, design and data.

We see this value in the rapid growth of ‘superfused’ digital agencies in the Brighton creative and digital cluster, for example, in the booming UK games sector, and in the extraordinary success of the R&D-intensive visual effects (VFX) cluster in Soho. A forthcoming Nesta report mapping the UK’s creative and high tech economies shows that the part of the UK workforce where the creative and high-tech economies meet has been particularly dynamic, growing exceptionally fast in recent years.

Yet, if all these industries – and many others – are to continue to innovate and grow, they will need talent with the capabilities, attitudes and sensibility to work across the two cultures. As Alex Hope, managing director of Double Negative puts it, his dream hire is someone with ‘Double Maths, Physics and Art A–levels’… but folk like that are exceedingly hard to find.

What is the cause of the problem?

Of course, there is no single cause for the persistence of the “Two Cultures” problem in British education. Rather, it is a consequence of complex interdependencies between what happens at schools, colleges and at universities.

Schools

The performance tables used to rank schools in England (and, in related ways, in Wales and Northern Ireland) are still overtly reliant on metrics that prioritise the sciences over the arts, when what we really need is for more young people to study both.

The arts remain excluded from important metrics used to rank schools at Key Stages 4 (the number of students qualifying for the English Baccalaureate) and 5 (the number of students achieving high grades in ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level).

Creative disciplines have very low visibility among the metrics used to rank English schools.

There have been some recent reforms here, precisely to address the concern that these metrics narrow the curriculum and devalue the arts. 2016 will see the introduction of Attainment 8 and Progress 8 metrics, which will rank schools in England on the performance of their students in eight subjects, potentially including the arts. At A-level, schools will be scored on how many students attain good grades in two facilitating subjects instead of three. However, in spite of all of this, creative disciplines like the arts – an essential ingredient alongside the sciences in creative fusion – have very low visibility among the expanding array of metrics being set up to rank English schools.

Going beyond school performance measures, young people are further discouraged from selecting a multidisciplinary mix of subjects by the language used in brochures like The Russell Group’s ‘Informed Choices’, which clearly separates ‘scientists’ (who will have chosen two science A-levels and maybe an humanities subject “for the sake of maintaining a wider outlook on life”) from ‘artists’ who “may well be thinking about an art foundation course as a precursor to a degree programme”. That – as mentioned above – the arts are specifically excluded from the list of facilitating subjects that students are advised to choose to keep their university options open, and in some cases are even part of the ‘non-preferred’ list of subjects by those universities that publicise them e.g. the LSE and some Cambridge colleges, is a prejudice that needs urgent addressing.

Importantly – as the numbers cited earlier attest – the problem isn’t just that not enough young people with a knack for science consider the arts as an option at A-level; it is also that not enough young people interested in arts, design and humanities subjects take STEM qualifications too.  

The situation is somewhat different in Scotland: there, the Curriculum for Excellence – which was introduced in 2010/11 – recognises creativity as a cross-cutting theme that needs to inform all subjects areas, and seeks to create opportunities for ‘interdisciplinary learning’ based on applied projects and students’ interests. This recognition of the value of fusing disciplines is also reflected in the inclusion of an interdisciplinary project in the Scottish Baccalaureates, a group of awards that young people can pursue in the last years of secondary education (it must however be said that these Baccalaureates are still organised around ‘coherent’ groups of disciplines that separate ‘science’ from the ‘expressive arts’.)  

Universities

In contrast to the US, where students have the option to major in one area and minor in another one, UK undergraduate degrees generally specialise in a single discipline. This is one reason why universities exclude arts from the list of facilitating subjects, and why STEM qualifications at A-level are rarely, if ever, amongst the entry requirements for arts, design and other creative courses. This results in a perceived lack of demand for applicants who have studied a ‘fused’ set of subjects at A-level, which in turn reduces the incentives for young people to pursue a multidisciplinary mix of subjects at school. 

One option for students who want to break away from disciplinary silos is to do a Joint (or Combined) honours degrees bringing together two disciplines. Joint honours courses are however becoming rarer – the number of students studying them has gone down by around 25% between 2001-2 and 2011-12 (the second biggest decrease after Computer Science). This could be partly caused by a perception amongst students that these degrees are more demanding in their entrance requirements (since students need to be accepted by each of the departments involved in the degree) and coursework (not least because lack of coordination across the departments offering them can result in overlaps in lectures and assignments). The importance of achieving a good mark at the end of their degree might be discouraging students from pursuing this multidisciplinary option.

Interestingly, a small number of British universities have recently started offering major/minor programmes and liberal education programmes following the example of the US. But the numbers are small, and the courses often combine subjects within the humanities, rather than bridging the arts-science divide.  

Our recommendations

Although there is no single action that will solve the problems identified above, that does not mean they are intractable. There has in recent times been a growing acknowledgement of their severity, and of the need to address them. This is reflected, for example, in the education and skills recommendations in the Creative Industries Council’s Create_UK Strategy, and in the movement calling for a shift in schools from STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths), spearheaded in the UK by the Cultural Learning Alliance. Meanwhile, the Bacc for the Future campaign has been pursuing a greater recognition of creative subjects in school league tables.

The recommendations we outline below will help remove bottlenecks across the pipeline for ‘fused’ talent in the creative economy and beyond. Crucially, these recommendations should be viewed as part of a wider programme of educational reform to equip children with the skills needed to succeed in a high-tech economy, including greater use of project work and workplace simulation approaches in schools, as well as extra-curricular activities such as coding and digital making clubs – all changes that Nesta has championed through research, policy and practical programmes including Next Gen, A Manifesto for the Creative Economy, Decoding Learning or Make Things Do Stuff.

Schools

The Department for Education should adopt the recommendation of a series of reports including Next Gen, the Henley Review and Create_UK to include an arts subject in the English Baccalaureate, improving the visibility of the arts and addressing a situation where young people who are strong in sciences are positively discouraged from considering arts as a valuable complement to other qualifications so early on in their education.

It is clear, however, that this intervention will not on its own guarantee that more young people combine arts and science subjects in their GCSEs or A-levels. Achieving this will require demand for a multidisciplinary mix from universities – an issue we consider below – and an increased awareness among young people of the value of a fused education in the labour market (for example, through effective career guidance, and more involvement of creative industries professionals with a ‘STEAM profile’ in initiatives such as STEMNet’s successful Ambassadors programme.) We agree with Create_UK’s recommendation that Ofsted be given a role to play in monitoring progress towards the goal of increasing the number of young people studying fused combinations of subjects.

We also need to pay more careful attention to lessons that can be learnt from the experience of the growing number of international educational systems and institutions that are experimenting with creativity and crossover between disciplines, as in the case of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, for example, and those schools developing curricula based on STEAM in the US.

Universities

The government should enter a dialogue with universities, including The Russell Group, to ensure they do not discourage students from selecting a mix of science, technology and arts qualifications in schools. This involves reconsidering the language used in the literature for prospective applicants, and also the definition of facilitating subjects. In that regard, universities need to go beyond a narrow understanding of ‘arts’ education as a source of specialist knowledge for an artistic career, and acknowledge the wider applicability of the creative attitudes and skills it engenders.

Disciplinary silos in academia are a secular, complex problem, and addressing them goes beyond the scope of our arguments here. Nonetheless, impactful, short-term corrective actions can be taken to increase fusion in university syllabuses, including boosting the technological capabilities of UK art schools (and their demand for students studying a mix of arts and science in schools) by setting up centres based on the ESRC and Nuffield Foundation’s Q-Step model which aim to improve quantitative skills in the social sciences in the UK. These centres, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and other Research Councils, would develop innovative approaches for science and technology training in art and design schools, and collaborate with industry to identify opportunities for internships and placements.

Last, but not least, we need to increase the supply and visibility of major/minor and joint honours degrees that combine science, technology and artistic disciplines in ways that create value for the creative economy. We call for all sector skills bodies to work with industry to identify areas of fused excellence within further and higher education, so that young people understand which are the courses offering a fused – as opposed to confused – education, and ones that employers value. One way to encourage such effort might be to adopt Creative Skillset’s successful kitemarking model, and award a ‘creative fusion’ kitemark to those joint honours/major-minor courses that best fulfil the multidisciplinary needs of industry, therefore raising the visibility of such courses among students.

Conclusion

As the years go on, the gaps between the way young people are educated in UK schools and universities – within disciplinary silos – and the way in which they work in industry – as part of multidisciplinary, creative teams – get bigger and bigger. And so do the risks of the ‘creative losses’ that C.P. Snow warned against in his Two Cultures lecture a half a century ago.

The gaps between the way young people are educated in schools and universities and the way in which they work in industry is getting bigger and bigger.

Seemingly no government has had the nerve to tackle this. Education is a complex system, and there is no silver bullet that will remedy the situation. But that does not mean that the problem is intractable. This is why we are calling for systemic actions to encourage more multidisciplinary fusion in schools and universities, bringing together the arts and the sciences, to (in Eric Schmidt’s words), “nurture the polymaths” who will drive innovation and growth in the UK’s creative economy in the years to come. 

(Image via Vancouver Film School)

Author

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Executive Director, Creative Economy and Data Analytics

Hasan leads Nesta's creative and digital economy policy and research.

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Juan Mateos-Garcia

Juan Mateos-Garcia

Juan Mateos-Garcia

Director of Innovation Mapping

Juan leads a team of data scientists, developers, visualisers and innovation experts who use new datasets, analytics methods and visualisation tools to inform innovation policy.

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