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Politicians must recognise the UK’s creative capacity

Rule Britannia in the creative industries: but for how long? Yui Mok/PA

The creative industries are an intriguing part of the UK economy - glitteringly successful, but difficult to pin down in terms of exact value and for some, maybe just too volatile to trust.

Ever since international industries have developed in design, media, fashion, film and so on, the UK has had an influence entirely out of proportion with its size. A reputation for quality and consistency of new talent has kept us in the premier league up to now. But for how much longer will creative industries remain a key part of the UK’s business model?

The world’s emerging economic powerhouses have caught on to the value of creative arts and are well on the way to having their own thriving ventures. The BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - recently agreed to set up a joint Creative Industries Cooperation Centre, based in China. Strong domestic creative industries will be beneficial not just in themselves, but for powering growth in other sectors - an underpinning for innovation and market success in science and engineering.

So, where does this competition leave the UK? Is our future one of ever-increasing reliance upon financial services? Or perhaps a return to low-wage manufacturing? To avoid those possibilities, we need to pay more attention to our creative side.

The problem is our fixation with “employability” and what this means for attitudes to the arts. With an end to long-term job security, the concept of employability has been used to encourage people to be more flexible and develop translatable skills. That’s sensible - as long as there’s a clear understanding about where the career and business opportunities really are.

Unfortunately, the idea of what makes someone employable and the “right stuff” to meet the needs of the jobs market is dominated by a political class and their networks of advisers and influencers from business and industry who have little, if any, understanding of the creative arts.

The old-fashioned cultural divide between the sciences and the arts persists, along with all the accompanying baggage of attitudes about the realism of one and flakiness of the other. Too often there is confusion between creative arts as an industry and as culture, or leisure distraction, looking for public hand-outs. While ministers will acknowledge the importance of the UK’s creative sector, the recognition is sporadic and undermined by the relative level of policy excitement and commitment shown towards science and technology innovation.

The fact is the UK’s creative industries have continued to grow through the recession and have massive long-term potential. As emerging economies catch up and build their own creative empires there will be more competition in some areas, but also many more opportunities in others, for more joint-working, to access new markets, and for overseas jobs for our talent.

The biggest youth markets will be in China, India, Indonesia and the US, and we’ll need to be able to make links and meet their new demands. It would make sense, then, to ensure we have a firm grasp on the state of things here and make the most of all these opportunities in areas such as gaming, fashion, or TV.

A basic indication of the lack of understanding of the creative sector is that we don’t have reliable figures for its exact value and where the potential for further growth is. Another, and far more important issue, is that the pipeline of young people following their ambition to work in the arts could run dry. Why take a risk - or at least, be seen to take a risk - on choosing arts subjects that are perceived to be disconnected from the real world?

The opposite is actually true in terms of what students get from a degree in the creative arts. Compared with an area such as science and technology, creative degrees can be more focused on business realities. Academics working in the creative arts are more likely to combine commercial activity or enterprise with teaching, courses tend to involve collaboration with business, and students are expected to work on individual and collaborative projects 9 to 5 and beyond.

The UK needs optimists and risk-takers. Just those kinds of people who have been integral to making our creative sector what it is today. But without a more open-minded approach to what makes young people employable and where the opportunities are, they might well be in short supply for the future.

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