Challenging the narratives: higher education institutions and agency in the creative economy.

Author:Lim, Lorraine
Position:Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism


This article seeks to assess the possibility for contemporary higher education institutions (HEIs) to challenge current working practices in the creative economy. The article will first examine the current state and perception of work within the creative economy in the UK, before examining the role HEIs play as a 'producer' of talent for this sector, which is relevant globally. By drawing upon two projects that examine work placements and curriculum development for young graduates, the article will then show how there are opportunities to provide some form of power and agency for young graduates as they seek to develop their career in the creative economy. While the context and examples in this article are drawn from the UK, this article will conclude by highlighting how these issues are prevalent in the creative economies accross the world, and will assert that we (education professionals) need to consider alternative ways of preparing students for work in the creative economy, in the cause of social justice, development, as well as careers.

Introduction: work in the Creative Economy within the UK

In recent years, culture has been understood and used by governments around the world as a tool both to bolster economic growth and advance social development. The potential for culture via the creative economy was formally recognised back in 2008 by major the United Nations agencies, for example where the Creative Economy Report 2008 (UNCTAD, 2008) stated that "the creative economy has the potential to generate income, jobs ... while ... promoting social inclusion, cultural diversity and human development" (p. iii). This belief has been reiterated in 2013 with a special edition of its Creative Economy Report (now jointly published by the UNDP and UNESCO), and which highlights how the creative economy is not only "highly transformative ... in terms of income-generation, job creation and export earnings", but investment in this sector can also contribute to the "overall wellbeing of communities, individual self-esteem and quality of life, dialogue and cohesion" (p.10). The financial support of large-scale cultural projects around the world--from cities such as Abu Dhabi and Singapore, to policy developments to allow for the creation of creative clusters in Shanghai and London--is testament to how this policy belief (without a huge amount of empirical evidence to back it up) stands as a firm political principle, where a "creative economy" is understood to be an engine of growth, and must be adopted at all levels of governance as a form of strategic development, particularly in the cause of reversing the decline of economies built on agriculture and manufacturing.

The rise of this "creative economy" has thus occurred alongside a positive notion of the type of work that this economy demands, or is available for would-be-creative workers, along with a positive notion of the way such work is structured, organised and managed in this new creative sector (or series of sectors--there is little consensus on how the creative "economy" is structured, whether in a city, or country, a region, or globally). Work in the creative economy is routinely understood to be 'creative' (again, another largely undefined term) and by this virtue is understood as particularly rewarding for the worker. Creative labour is where workers are to some degree autonomous and independent; they are more able to set their own working hours or indeed work in a variety of locations. In other words, the creative economy promises the opposite (an antidote to?) the alienated labour of industrial modernity. This comes with the irony that the above UNDP/UNESCO report is largely aimed at BRIC or emerging industral countries, whose stage of development one could describe as 'modernisation'. Most importantly for us, however, is that the forms of work that are being generated and produced within this new creative economy are routinely portrayed as fun as much as personally fulfilling--they are attractive to a wide range of people, and particularly young people.

The positive image of what constitutes work in the creative economy has not gone unnoticed by young people globally, in part as the creative economy notionally includes a range of consumer goods, cultural products, design and entertainment, that typically appeal to younger people (from video games to fashion to magazines, and so on). What has ensued in recent years (particularly within higher education in the UK) is a growing number of young people positively inspired and motivated to develop a career in the creative economy (dominated, it must be observed by the media and communications industries, including marketing, PR and advertising). In the UK, recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency demonstrate that there has been a 5% increase in the number of undergraduate students who have applied for courses in the subject area of 'creative arts and design' (HESA, 2015). For graduates, it seems, being able to determine the very nature of work seems to outweigh more traditional concerns over the established professions and identities, security, pay and working conditions. However, the initial interest in developing a career in the creative economy might also demonstrate a lack of awareness of the actual, material working conditions that exist, where, for example, in many sectors of the creative economy there is a chronic shortage of stable employment opportunities, or where (in particular the publicly-funded arts and cultural institutions), there remains a state of severe budgetary pressures, particularly in their publicly-sourced revenues, and where the rise of private sponsorship or investment means that new pressures and limits are being continually introduced in relation to the opportunities for career development and progression. This paper will consider this current ensuing scenario--the seeming attractiveness and popularity of the new creative economy, whose actual conditions of labour are always partially (if not wholly) concealed from newcomers, are making young job seekers particularly vulnerable.

Higher Education and the Creative Economy

The often precarious and insecure working conditions within the creative economy has not gone unnoticed by scholars. One of the key areas of interdisciplinary research that has developed since the late 1990s in Western Europe has been the working conditions, expected behaviours, values, contractual terms as well as environmental conditions of workers within this new creative economy (see Ball, 2003; Gill and Pratt, 2008; Gill 2010; Bridgstock, 2011). The struggles of the new creative workers are being documented and recorded and a number of publications addressing issues such as inequality of access, lack of diversity, exploitation and working hours, has steadily risen in the last five years--and can be seen as a manifestation of a growing 'social conscience' in the new economy as a whole (see Allen et al 2010; McGuigan, 2010; Social Market Foundation 2010; Ashton, 2011). What, however, has been less discussed across the emerging schoolarly currents is the role that higher education (particularly the large, wealthy, and established HEI institutions) play within the creative economy scenarios outlined above, though this is gradually changing with recent publications (see Ashton and Noonan, 2013; Gilmore and Comunian, 2016) as well as conferences such as the Higher Education & the Creative Economy conference held at King's College, London in 2015 (see Comunian and Gilmore, 2015). The HEI's, we may safely say, are part of the production process through which the creative economy develops. They are not marginal in their impact or role, and not somehow sealed within a hermetic sphere of social life called the 'public' sector: quite the contrary, in recent years their behaviour, values and operations of HEI's have taken after the pattern of American corporate strategic management, and their subsequent corporate interventions in industry and the careers' marketplace have been highly strategic and part of their overall delivery on their educational aims. The creative economy largely functions through a supply of suitable labour (labourers who are suitably already inculcated with the behaviours and values required for such labour flexibility, adaptability, the acceptance of nonmonetary rewards, individual 'trade-offs' of monetary reward for personal reward, and of course the availability of 'creativity', and so on).

These young creative workers are almost always educated at college of HE level, and are students when they encounter the creative economy 'imaginary'. The HEIs provide the training and qualifications of such graduates, but perhaps more importantly, it is within the education system that the notion of 'creative economy' as a desirable career destination is inculcated--even to the extent that other, potentially, rewarding careers (in Law, Medecine, and so on) are turned down in favour of it. To the extent that the HEIs, therefore, support the creative economy, what are their roles and responsibilities as they produce the next batch of eager graduates keen to develop a career in this sector?

A critical reflection of the responsibilities of HEIs within this creative economy is a crucial step for scholars to undertake, for two reasons. Firstly, it is clear that young creative workers are reliant on a formal qualification to set themselves apart within a highly...

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