Re-animation of our universities

November 7, 1997

Almost twice as many people in Britain are now employed in the arts and cultural industries as in the motor industry. Similarly dramatic figures, though widely varying, are put on the amount these industries earn. Whatever the exact amount, the number of billions from record sales, broadcasting and television, popular music, design and fashion, are impressive - even if there is some double counting.

Significantly these industries, developing on the back of new technologies, are very much part of the new working world of freelances and small independent producers. The people who work in them are highly skilled and highly mobile and are becoming increasingly closely linked with higher education. These burgeoning industries and these growing links are the subject of this year's annual THES survey of universities' relations with industry, Culture as Business, published today to coincide with the CBI conference.

A number of things have been happening which deserve attention. As the structure of these industries has changed in ways described by David Plowright (page v of the survey), people wanting to enter them have had to acquire the necessary skills without relying, as they once might, on gaining a traineeship in a large organisation. Instead, young people who want to work in these fields - and who can blame them for wanting to join some of the fastest growing and most exciting sectors of the economy - have turned to higher education for the qualifications which will get them through the door. And universities and colleges, urged to expand in the late 1980s and early 1990s, responded to this growing demand by devising the necessary courses.

The speed and extent of this growth has outraged some of the more traditional "educationists", including, it would seem, the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead. He recently told an audience at Warwick University that he regards education as being "the disinterested study of the best that has been thought and said". While progress has been made, he thought, our vocational qualifications are still not rigorous enough.

"It (education) is not, and must not, be seen as just an apprenticeship to domestic, industrial and commercial life", he said. He was especially sceptical about courses in golf course studies, cosmetics, vehicle restoration, entertainment crafts and horsestudies, and keen on rediscovering the joys of aliberal education.

But the days when the country could afford only to indulge a few gentlemen in the pursuit of learning for leisure, while leaving everyone else to be trained on the job, are long gone. The economy demands imaginative, highly-skilled and flexible people in growing numbers.

There is a great deal of snobbery about what is "education" and what is "training". The heat of the argument betrays its pointlessness. It is perfectly possible to get educated while learning something useful.

Even the most traditional concede that medicine, law, and theology have vocational purposes. They have more trouble with media studies, animation, performance and management of popular music or sports management, but then their forebears in the last century had trouble with English and history. And it is only in this century that engineers and lawyers have had to go to college instead of learning by doing time articled to an established professional.

It is time for attention to focus on the correlation between the industries at which this country is excelling, and the choices students make. Some courses may be - or may have been early on - a bit flaky. But the best are among the hardest to get into in the country. Not all those who aspire will make successful careers in fashion, film or design, but courses in animation and special effects, for example, cannot produce graduates fast enough to satisfy demand and there is hardly a car company in Europe which does not use designers who studied at the Royal College of Art.

The real challenge is not to rule on whether we have too many or too few such students and courses. It is to create the economic climate in which these talented people do not take elsewhere the skills in which they have invested. One of the most heartening pieces of news last week was that David Aukin was leaving Channel 4 to join Miramax, but that he was not leaving for Hollywood. Instead, he is setting up a Miramax studio here. May it be the first of many.

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