The art of capitalising on our assets

October 5, 2007

Higher education's role in the creative industries must be fostered, says Geoffrey Crossick

When John Denham addressed vice- chancellors at Universities UK's annual conference, he told us his new department stood for something different. The creation of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills ended the divide, he said, between innovation and knowledge transfer on the one hand and education and skills on the other. They were part and parcel of the same agenda.

But, I said to myself as I listened to the new Secretary of State, innovation, knowledge transfer and higher education are not all in the same department. The two fastest-growing parts of the UK economy over the past decade - the financial sector and the creative industries - are left out of this happy merger in the same way they had been omitted from the research and innovation responsibilities of the old Department of Trade and Industry. The fact is that the most innovative parts of the knowledge economy have been left out of the core research and innovation agenda because finance is the responsibility of the Treasury and the creative industries that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The creative industries range from film and music through fashion and design to architecture and computer games, and I can see why the DCMS might have seemed the right home for them. Their success is unthinkable without the creative energy and artistic imagination that the DCMS exists to foster. Without a vibrant and democratic cultural environment, creative entrepreneurship would have no more than superficial resources. The result, however, was that policymaking for the creative industries was cut off from both the government department responsible for innovation and that responsible for higher education. Those responsibilities have been brought together in the DIUS, but the creative industries remain largely excluded.

A couple of years ago, the DCMS launched a programme to develop a strategy for the creative economy. Its seven working groups reported late last year. Will Hutton and the Work Foundation were then commissioned to write an independent contribution to policy. Staying Ahead: the Economic Performance of the UK's Creative Industries is making a justified impact because it is the most serious analysis we've had of a sector whose decade of growth may now be beginning to falter. We're awaiting a government Green Paper on the creative economy.

For all its qualities, Staying Ahead is unlikely to convey to an innocent reader just how important higher education is to the creative economy. New entrants to most of the 13 sectors that define the creative industries are predominately graduates. This also goes for those who set up often tiny creative enterprises whose business chain networks regenerate our cities. New knowledge and ideas are shaped in the research environment of universities and specialist higher education institutions, a process that has intensified in almost all of the forms of art, performance and communication that feed the creative economy with the digital economy.

Skills and knowledge transfer are nowhere more closely allied than in the creative industries, as graduates and postgraduates emerge into employment or their own creative enterprises carrying with them the most innovative research ideas that they have experienced through their education. Many of those teaching and researching in higher education are themselves practitioners with their own enterprises, moving between the different environments.

One gets no more than glimpses of this in Staying Ahead , and my fear is that the Green Paper will similarly miss the core role of higher education for the creative economy. Hutton and his team may have simply taken for granted the role of higher education, but it needs exploring. We need to think about the problems with applying traditional ideas of knowledge transfer to the creative industries, and we need to see the skills of creative graduates as something much more imaginative and dynamic than the current skills agenda seems able to grasp.

Higher education has been marginalised as government policy for the creative industries has developed. The DCMS has, over the past year or so, improved its approach to this area of its responsibilities. Would things be different if the creative economy as a whole (not just one or two parts of it) were the responsibility of the DIUS, combining as the new department does responsibility for research, innovation, universities and skills? It's a fine judgment. The critical issue is this: wherever the creative industries are located in government, policymakers must understand that higher education is not marginal but central to the creative economy. The creative industries must maintain their momentum - and part of what is needed for that is knowledge, research and the talent and the ideas that come from a challenging learning experience. That is what higher education is about.

Geoffrey Crossick is warden of Goldsmiths, University of London.

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