Creative Skills for the Creative Economy

Kate O’Connor

As we come to the end of the 2010 Coalition government, it is striking is how much the concept of the creative industries has endured in public policy. When the-then Culture Secretary Chris Smith launched the Creative Industries Mapping Document in 1998, few would have predicted that 17 years later a Conservative Chancellor in his last budget of the Parliament would be describing the sector as a ‘powerhouse’ and ‘huge contributor to the UK economy’, as he announced another round of fiscal incentives to promote its growth.

Perhaps even more surprising is how, as part of this, education and skills for the sector have become so firmly embedded in creative industries policy. On its establishment by the Coalition government, the Creative Industries Council immediately identified skills as an initial priority, and established a working group to produce a report, outlining recommendations for ‘industry led approaches and proposals for addressing skills’. The report was endorsed by the Council in 2012, since when Create UK, the CBI, Nesta, the Creative Industries Federation and the recent Warwick Commission have all set out visions for economic growth that put education and skills at the heart of their recommendations.

This policy approval has underpinned a welcome continuity in terms of skills provision for the sector. The ‘bonfire of the quangos’ may have shut down much of the creative industries support infrastructure, particularly at the regional level, but the sector skills councils such as Creative Skillset and Creative and Cultural Skills were regarded as industry organizations and remained. In many ways this reflects principles now accepted across the political spectrum: that industry has to play an active role in shaping and directing skills provision, and that public investment in skills is required in order to leverage support from the private sector.

The result is that the creative sector has benefited from substantial and targeted public investment in skills over the last four years and this continues, as shown by the Budget announcement of additional support for the Skills Investment Fund. At the same time, there are increasing signs that industry is raising its game in terms of engagement and investment. Initiatives such as the Creative Skillset Industrial Partnership, the Skills Investment Fund and the National College for the Creative and Cultural Industries have only been possible because of high levels of co-investment from both employers and government.

Despite these achievements however, we are still a long way from the kind of coherent, connected and ‘industry-owned strategy’ envisaged by the Creative Industries Council.  While bodies such as Creative Skillset and  Creative and Cultural Skills  have remained in place, they are now almost wholly dependent on funding applications and tendering for short-term (typically 1-2 year) service contracts. The result is that our industry-led system is danger of becoming a market-led one, with a shift to delivering on time-limited projects and contracts issued by central government, which are not always available across the UK and whose output targets often lead to a focus on individual large employers rather than support for a wider range of small businesses.

In addition, there remains a failure to embed an industry skills strategy within a wider policy context. Despite the work of Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network, there has been insufficient connection between investment in research and innovation to skills provision. Much the same could be said for other issues critical to the sector, such as business support, higher education knowledge exchange, social mobility, cluster development, access to finance and digital infrastructure. Most troubling of all is education. Although there has been valuable work on specific issues such as video games, education policy as a whole has become alarmingly uncoupled from both industry and the evidence base. A narrow focus on ‘core’ academic qualifications and ill-defined notions of rigour have meant that many are understandably concerned that we are jeopardizing the pipeline of new entrants with the artistic, design, technical and entrepreneurial skills that the industry depends. The opportunities provided by the more vocational education developments such as University Technical Colleges and Studios Schools are also in danger of being lost without a link to an industry skills strategy.

The UK is still home to creative talent admired throughout the world. But to ensure that this continues, and for us to have a world beating sector then we need an approach to skills that is based on an industry-led strategy and that encompasses education, innovation, access and much more. The following would all be steps in the right direction:

  • Instead of being dependent on service contracts, the government should provide sustained funding  for strategic skills organisations to work with industry to target interventions, identify needs and raise investment.
  • BIS and DoE need to develop a joint vision for how public investment in schools education can be maximised to develop the creative, design, entrepreneurial and technical talent required by the creative industries.
  • As the government department responsible for both the SSCs and Innovate UK, BIS should champion the development of joint funding programmes providing opportunities for businesses to simultaneously access innovation and skills support.


Kate O’Connor is an independent consultant


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