The battle for arts and minds

March 14, 2003

Michael Bichard puts the case for a university dedicated to serving the creative industries

Sometime last century, C. P. Snow wrote an essay about how the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities - the "two cultures" of his title - was hindering the solution of the world's problems. There was not much new in what he said, yet his work caught the spirit of the day and a fuss ensued.

Fast forward to our own enlightened times and a scientist sits down to write a white paper on higher education that contains little or no reference to the arts - or indeed the non-economic value of higher education - and yet there is barely a whimper. So what does that say about the spirit of our day? That the sciences are where the serious action is and that the arts are little more than parlour games to be played by genteel ladies and children when the serious work is done? That the arts have little to say and less to contribute? Well, maybe not.

Last May, Chris Smith, the former culture minister, gave a lecture at the London Institute in which he reminded his audience that "the same sources of creative imagination that give birth to the highest forms of traditional art can also help to generate economic value. Creativity is what, more than almost anything else, we have to offer to the world. This is where, increasingly, our wealth and employment are going to come from as the 21st century develops."

But although we have specialist universities for science and technology, there is no equivalent for the arts and creativity.

At the London Institute we develop people who can think outside the box and do things differently, which is what the country needs. As Sir Terence Conran said: "We need universities that generate scientific research and academia, but we also need ones that train creative people."

The statistics support his point. Unlike many sectors of the UK economy, the creative industries grew by 9 per cent between 1995 and 2000, when they employed 1.95 million people. Nationally, the creative industries contribute 7.9 per cent of UK gross domestic product each year, second only to the financial services sector. Yet there is no broad-based university dedicated to their pursuit. That is why the London Institute is applying for that status.

There are those who argue that the success of art and design colleges has been a direct consequence of the fact that they are not universities. In this difference, the argument runs, lies their ability to attract the rebel teenage geniuses who might ultimately "turn the world upside down".

But what turns our rebel teenage genius into an amazing artist and designer is our ability to help them focus on what they do best and pursue it with sheer bloody minded determination. And that's what we will continue to offer.

But for every rebel teenage genius there are hundreds of students who, for a variety of reasons, are unsure that the arts are worth studying. The arts still have some way to go to convince the public, the press and politicians that they should be taken seriously - that the economic and social wellbeing of the nation depends on them. That's another reason why the sector needs a specialist broad-based university.

The title "university" is a signal of the highest academic quality and will give students and their parents confidence that investing in an arts education is a sound decision. We seek this title as a recognition of our achievements, but also for our students and graduates and for the creative industries we serve.

Sir Michael Bichard is rector of the London Institute.

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