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Creativity Counts

  • 27 November 2019
  • By Will Woods

This guest blog was kindly contributed by Will Woods, Principal and CEO of the Open College of the Arts, part of the University of the Creative Arts group.

What does a student look like in 2019? It is a question I would like to have asked Theresa May when she announced the Augar review of higher education. I would wager that along with other people I might casually ask on the streets of any town in the UK, she would have described someone aged between 18 and 22, planning ahead for a fifty-year working life, with a salary in mind and expecting to study full-time at a campus university for three or more years. Tim Blackman, Vice Chancellor at the Open University, described the review as a disappointment for higher education. He pointed out that ’the biggest weakness in the report is its social policy. Augar’s paradigm is economic and there is no consideration given to issues such as the marked social polarisation of the UK’s higher education sector, the quality of teaching or extent of learning gain, or the relationship between education and research.’

The architects, cooks, dentists, teachers, waiters, farmers, firefighters, accountants, taxi drivers, hoteliers, midwives and circuit judge who were among The Open College of the Art’s (OCA) first students in 1988 would not get a look-in. Our current students, who chose OCA because they want to fit their studies in with work, travel and family, would be excluded from the definition too. So, for the most part, would the third of OCA students with either a disability, caring responsibilities or a custodial sentence to serve. They know that for themselves, online and distance learning is a better route to higher education than the conventional one.

What are universities for?

The preoccupations of reviews of higher education are driving up quality, increasing choice and ensuring value for money. Since the Robbins’ era of university expansion in the 1960s and the creation of universities from former polytechnics in 1992, the impetus behind higher education policy has increasingly been equipping young people for the workplace. Lord Browne’s 2010 review has refocused higher education as a consumer commodity rather than a force for social change.

While universities themselves may not have lost sight of the intrinsic value of higher-level study, that debate has been squeezed into a corner, displaced by discourse on Vice Chancellors’ salaries and student debt. Meanwhile, mature students have been largely priced out of the market, with the number of undergraduates studying part-time just half of what it was five years ago.

Sir Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Arts London, summed up the issue eloquently in his speech on why the ‘value’ of higher education is too important and multifaceted to reduce to mere metrics, he said: ‘The current Government’s discourse on the value delivered by higher education is too narrowly focused. The Value for Money Strategy of the Office for Students, launched at the HEPI / PwC conference last month, exemplifies this reductive interpretation. I take no issue with its core idea that students and graduates should benefit from their higher education studies. But the value higher education delivers to students does not equate to its total value to society.’

Higher education, social change and creativity

There is no good reason for employability and learning to bring about social change to be set up in opposition to one another. The higher education sector can and should accommodate both.

I am, however, arguing for a shift in focus when we talk about higher education, bringing our starting point back to the mission of social change that informed all the organisations that Michael Young set up and updating it for the 21st century. The evidence base isn’t lacking. A 2017 government-commissioned report into the benefits of adult learning cites improved social wellbeing, crime reduction and more active citizenship among the benefits to adults of learning.

At OCA 93% of students are over the age of 21 and 79% are over the age of 30. We continue to challenge orthodoxies: the notion, which persists, that you cannot teach the creative arts at a distance; that students are young people preparing for a career; and that the creative arts exist in a bubble, separate from science, technology and commerce.

Emma Hunt, Deputy Vice Chancellor at Arts University Bournemouth says The UK’s number one skill should be creativity. I wholeheartedly agree with that opinion. There is a strength in multidisciplinary study. The creative industries are creating the jobs of the future, where emphasis on human creativity and ingenuity are core. Not my words, but one of the keynotes of the UK’s Industrial Strategy – a central reference point for the Augar Report and its recommendations on post-18 education, as explained by John Last, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, in his HEPI blog, Augar and the Industrial Strategy: 10 key points for the incoming Prime Minister about the creative arts and creative industries.

There is of course a support burden to expanding adult education. Many higher education providers now are realising that there is an increasing requirement to offer a range of unique services to support students with mental health issues and to provide additional support and funding to the most vulnerable in our society. OCA recognises this through a specialised team, and, understanding that mature learners are more likely to suffer financial hardship whilst studying and are less likely to be able to access student finance, provides additional financial support to mature learners. Research conducted in 2018 on mature learners from the Association of Modern Universities backs this up, with over half of the students surveyed saying they had experienced some form of financial hardship during their studies.

As we enter a general election in December 2019 the main UK parties have begun to set out their education agenda. It is heartening to see that adult learning is being considered. The Confederation of British Industries (CBI) business group welcomed making this a priority, saying: ‘Adult participation in education is at its lowest for two decades’. The Centenary Commission on Adult Education published a new report last week calling on all universities to provide adult education and lifelong learning. Indeed, it recommends that this should become a requirement for using the protected term ‘university’. No adult education and lifelong learning, no university. Jonathan Michie, the President of Kellogg College, Oxford summarised the recommendations from the report by saying ‘It can be done. It is vitally and urgently required for the good of communities, society, and the economy. It is a demonstrably good investment on all these levels.’

So, let me ask the question again: what does a student look like?


  1. I agree totally that adult education is a ‘good thing’, but I’m rather puzzled by the phrase ‘creative arts’. Does this imply that some arts are not creative? Or that all fields of study that are not ‘arts’ are necessarily dull and boring? And, by the same token, are all activities outside the ‘creative industries’ (presumably as exemplified by the media and computer games) just drudge-work?

    It all depends, I suspect, on your definition of ‘creativity’. If the definition is along the lines of “creativity = ability to compose music” then that rules out engineering.

    But if the definition is “the ability and confidence to think for oneself”, then maybe a forensic scientist can be “creative” in discovering a new way to track evidence, and maybe a school teacher can be “creative” in discovering a better way of engaging those otherwise distracted pupils.

    Is “creativity” a core skill in which every student should build confidence and self-esteem, regardless of their field of study?

  2. Will Woods says:

    I agree talking about creative arts in isolation is reductive. I think the simplest way to answer this is to explain what we see from our students and from some of the businesses that have worked with our students. Many of our students already have professional careers, indeed 75% are already employed in many of the trades and services across the UK and beyond including teaching, science, engineering and technology. These all require creativity and talent.

    I would argue though that creativity is not fostered or indeed encouraged in many environments *however* it is valued. Many students join us to unleash that creativity. They are taught to take risks, encouraged to experiment, taught how to synthesise ideas. These are things that are generally discouraged in risk averse businesses. Research shows that bringing creative talent into business environments improves the decision making. Our environments from school onwards increasingly focus on skills for particular employment, funding is funnelled into pots specific to subjects or a single profession, rather than transferable skills. Creativity is drilled out. Many return to education, and specifically creative education, later in life in order to recapture that. The definition shouldn’t be narrowed to creativity within the creative industries but to all professions. and

  3. Will Woods says:

    I agree that a discourse around creative arts as a subject area within higher education would be too narrow a focus. In answering you I’ll take the experience of our students, and the businesses that work with our students. 75% of our students are already in employment when they begin study with us, and in a wide range of professions across the UK and beyond including in teaching, science, technology and engineering.

    Creativity is essential in all of these professions however the experiences of students working in industries that you have described is that whilst these businesses value creativity they do not *necessarily* encourage or foster creative practice. Students engaging in study with us find themselves able to freely express that creativity, take risks, experiment and to synthesise ideas and to apply that back.

    Current educational regulation and the funding environment are designed around specific professions and subject areas. From a very young age educational systems erode creativity. These don’t encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches which are hard to deliver. More than that they reduce or remove creativity through creating environments which are risk averse. That combination of creativity and entrepreneurship in business contexts is a powerful one – research has found those that pursue creative practice provide wide ranging benefits to businesses as explained here

  4. Hi Will

    Thank you, and I agree entirely. Creativity – which, as I mentioned, is to me “the ability and confidence to think for oneself”, and let me add “and to be able to distinguish wisely between good ideas and poor ones” – is a fundamental core skill for everyone, and should be encouraged throughout the educational system.

    So it’s great that your institution, and I’m sure some others too, are fostering this.

    The message might also be getting through elsewhere, for example, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council “Creativity@home” programme, which encourages creativity in the sciences (, and the recent (October 2019) report from the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education (, in which the first two recommendations are

    “All schools, from early years through post-16 education, should be better enabled to establish and sustain the conditions in which creativity can be promoted, for all young people, whatever their background.”

    “Teaching for creativity should be practised across the curriculum and accessed by all. This is not at odds with academic rigour; indeed the development of creativity in any subject requires deep subject knowledge and understanding as well as the development of skills that enable the application of this knowledge and understanding. Nor should teaching for creativity be confined to certain subjects or phases; creativity in science is different from creativity in drama but is valuable in both.”

    But if I might be permitted one plea: to think of a replacement for the term “creative arts”, with its subliminal declaration of an exclusion zone!

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