Golden opportunities

The creative industries must be given as much support as STEM subjects to keep the UK at the forefront of the world economy, argues David Docherty

September 8, 2010

The Comprehensive Spending Review will be about priorities, and rightly each institution and sector will validly make the case for its own importance. From the point of view of business, the case for well-funded universities is strong. Put simply, without a stream of highly talented graduates, postgraduates and groundbreaking research, UK companies may not innovate fast enough to compete in global markets with the US, Germany, India, China and countries across Asia, which are all continuing strategically to invest in higher education.

Businesses, as well as universities, therefore need a long-term vision for higher education from the UK’s coalition government and devolved administrations, one informed by a realistic assessment of the global challenges facing UK industries. There has to be a mix of incentives, rewards, policies and practices that align to a “golden triangle” of growth, the points of which are businesses, universities and government. And, of course, if we include graduate talent, the triangle becomes a “golden square”. Global evidence shows that when these are unaligned, innovation stutters and companies and economies fall behind.

These themes were taken up recently by the Council for Industry and Higher Education’s (CIHE) task force on the creative, digital and information technology (CDIT) industries, co-chaired by Rona Fairhead, chairman and CEO of the Financial Times Group, and Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey. The task force’s report – The Fuse, which is published today – raises big-picture challenges for all partners in the golden square and makes specific recommendations to ensure growth.

CDIT industries are of enormous global economic value. Together they form a trillion-dollar market. Digital revenues are set to exceed $3 trillion (£1.95 trillion) in the next four years, with entertainment and media reaching $1.7 trillion in the same time scale. Mike Short, vice-president of research and development at O2, summed up the mood of the task force when he wrote: “Digital, ICT creative industries working together should be the horizontal platform for growth and competitiveness for the UK for the 21st century.”

CDIT education should, therefore, take its place alongside STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a strategic priority for government. And the coalition government and devolved administrations should review their procurement policies and research and development tax-credit system to foster innovation in CDIT businesses and, in particular, encourage the start-ups that will be tomorrow’s global leaders.

Crucially, however, these industries break any historical division between creativity and science. The STEM versus arts and humanities debate is both irrelevant and positively unhelpful when developing policy around CDIT. The task force strongly recommends new definitions and ways of capturing a true understanding of the economic contribution of CDIT businesses.

Science, information technology, software engineering and maths are vital to high-growth industries such as video games, social networks, search engines, e-commerce sites, internet-delivered video on demand, interactive content production, and a host of new CDIT businesses. But none of these businesses could exist without fabulous design, a deep understanding of consumers, and brilliant artists, writers, editors and producers. Networks without content are like arteries without blood.

Anne Morrison, director of the BBC Academy, summed up the challenge that this poses: “The era where we can afford multidisciplinary groups is becoming unaffordable. We need universities to develop graduates who have interdisciplinary skills or who can lead interdisciplinary teams.” Businesses are crying out for creative technologists and tech-savvy “creatives”, and the task force applauds the range of new initiatives that are breaking down barriers between disciplines, and looks to the various funding councils to incentivise and reward these breakthroughs.

Businesses must play their part in this emergent interdisciplinary world by working with universities to ensure that courses are relevant and that students are given the right grounding in what will be required of them. As Geoff Scott, the head of strategic development at BT, put it: “Particular technologies may well be defunct within a relatively short period of time. Higher education’s focus should be on developing young people with the ability to rapidly assimilate knowledge and develop competence on what will be an ever-changing suite of technologies.”

The task force noted a special feature of CDIT industries. The majority of businesses are relatively small and graduate-rich, with successful clusters emerging around committed universities. Major companies and universities must open themselves up systematically to understanding and working with these emergent graduate-rich small enterprises because who knows where the next Google, Facebook or Amazon will come from? One thing is probable, though – unless the golden square is aligned and funded, it won’t be from the UK.

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