Is University worth it?

As public funding for higher education has fallen and an increasing proportion of the UK’s top universities and conservatoires are electing to pass on the cost of degrees – up to £9,000 per year – to students, there’s never been a trickier time to work out whether higher education is the right course for you.

Creative Careers brought together staff and students from four leading London institutions – Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance; Goldsmiths, University of London; Central St Martin’s, University of the Arts London; and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – to discuss what higher education can offer young people hoping to pursue careers in the creative industries. The workshop began with a short film and introduction from each college or conservatoire to give the assembled young people a taste of student life, before giving way to a lively conversation – chaired by Creative Career’s own Anthony Grey – that took in cost, value, creative collaboration, personal development and the job market.

“Whatever field you end up going into you’re going to need to work with other people, so learning to collaborate is an absolute necessity for everybody”Carlos Lopez-Real

Collaboration was a buzzword that came up many times in the introductory phase of the workshop, with the representatives of each institution in turn highlighting the multiple opportunities available for students to work creatively with their peers, both within degree and foundation courses, and across them. The new BA Performance & Creative Enterprise (PACE) at Guildhall, for example, calls upon students from different artistic disciplines to collaborate on cross-arts projects, while students at Goldsmith’s are encouraged to ‘borrow’ units from degree courses very different their own – maths with music, say – to expand their academic horizons.

Havilland Willshire, assistant director of music and head of performance at Trinity Laban, drew attention to the potential of collaboration in terms of getting inspired by the work of those around you. Higher education brings you into contact with people you might not otherwise have met, and the impact on your own work can be huge. Learning to collaborate is also important for opportunities further down the line, said Mehmet Erk, a tutor in graphic design at Central St Martin’s: as traditional boundaries in the job market get ever more blurred, graduates need to be able to put their creativity to use with an ever wider range of people and situations; the flexibility borne of collaboration will be key. Carlos Lopez-Real, programme leader for the Guildhall’s BA PACE, echoed this sentiment, drawing attention to the rise of portfolio careers that rely on an open-minded approach to creativity and the world of work.

“It’s an investment that you make in yourself. Even though the fees are high, you’re paying for your own development, to have those facilities, to discover what you’re capable of”Mehmet Erk

The panel agreed that it’s easy to see why young people might be put off the idea of higher education by fees of up to £9,000 a year, but also sought to reassure attendees about the systems in place to cushion students and graduates from the impact of paying your own way. Lee McMahon, student recruitment & outreach officer at Goldsmith’s, described costs as “manageable” because of the fact that graduates only pay back loans from the Student Loans Company once they start earning over a certain threshold, and there are no repercussions if the loan isn’t paid back. Carlos pointed out that fees are paid to higher institutions directly by the Student Loans Company, rather than students themselves having to get involved with these large sums of money.

Havilland suggested that a more useful way of approaching the “very difficult” decision on whether university is worth the money, is to consider the “value” of a course of study rather than just its “cost”. Students at Trinity Laban, he noted, are kept extremely busy, not just with their degrees but with all the extracurricular opportunities available. You get a lot of bang for your buck at a top institution.

“It’s a really nice time to think about what you want to do and develop yourself without the pressures of making money or being in a field that’s quite difficult to work in”Ailsa Tully

In response to a question from the floor about what university can offer that launching straight into a career from school cannot, the panelists focused on personal development. Carlos acknowledged that higher education isn’t for everyone, and that it’s possible to pick up many of the core skills taught on degrees through solo learning outside an academic environment. For him, university is “all about the extras”, from collaboration to networking and everything in between. Havilland pointed out that university gives you the chance to learn about yourself and be challenged in a brand new environment. In terms of performing arts courses in particular, having the breathing space to experiment and make new work is invaluable.

“We have lots of opportunities for engagement with the profession which I don’t think would ever happen if you’re weren’t studying at a higher education institution” – Havilland Willshire

Towards the end of the session, an impassioned point from the floor about the challenging nature of the job market, particularly within the creative industries, and the responsibility of higher education institutions to paint a realistic picture for students, led to a discussion of some of the ways that a degree can offer a route to careers in the arts.

Sarah Lebrecht, student recruitment and international relations officer at Trinity Laban, pointed out that while colleges can make no promises as far as graduate employment is concerned, they’re very aware of the current challenging environment and do their utmost to assist. Trinity Laban, like many performing arts schools, teaches business skills as part of its courses, and helps students access agency work while they’re studying. Tutors, meanwhile, who work within the industry themselves, are well placed to offer contacts and insider advice.

Mehmet drew attention to the opportunities available within many courses at University of the Arts to spend placement years working in the industry, and Carlos highlighted how important it is for young people to look at all these sorts of details when weighing one course or institution up against another. Panelists also agreed that attending a high-ranking university or conservatoire has value in itself in terms of how you might be regarded by potential employers, so it’s always worth striving for the best.

By © Jo Caird

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