Dua Lipa’s double victory at last week’s Brit awards was a triumph for a young artist who initially struggled to break into the big time – but it is also a vindication of a creative arts education. At a time of rising education costs, debates over declining skills levels and funding cutbacks, the value of schooling and degrees in arts subjects is facing renewed scrutiny.
Last month, it emerged that the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, a rock music college that offers degrees in music production and songwriting, had received £24.4m in tuition fees last year, compared with £18m for the globally renowned London School of Economics. It leaves the question of how many of those loans will be paid back, given the arduous path to career success in the music industry. Indeed, the government launched a review last week of university tuition fees, including consideration of whether to vary the cost of certain subjects based on whether they were more or less “economically valuable”.
At least Lipa, who won best female solo artist and breakthrough artist last week, is an example of the financial benefits of arts teaching. The 22-year-old, who was the most streamed female artist in the UK last year, took classes at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and credits a teacher at the London institution with giving her the confidence to be a singer. Three of Lipa’s fellow nominees for female artist – Kate Tempest, Paloma Faith and Rita Ora – all had creative or performing arts educations too.
Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, cites a government report stating that the creative industries as a whole – including music and arts – are worth about £92bn a year to the UK. “Music is central to our cultural life, a key driver of economic growth, creates jobs, and has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development and emotional wellbeing,” she added.
At the music department at City University in London, the mood among students is positive, despite all that debt weighing over their heads. This is a course driven by love of the subject more than by a cold calculation of earnings longevity.
“If you’re going to pay all that money, you may as well enjoy what you do,” says 18-year-old James Blane, who faces a £50,000 debt at the end of his music and technology degree. However, statistics show that Blane’s enthusiasm is not shared by his peers. The university and college admissions body, Ucas, has recorded a fall in the number of creative arts applicants over the past three years, as tuition fees of £9,250 a year sharpen the focus on employability and put off some from poorer backgrounds.
Creative arts graduates face the prospect of the lowest median salaries of any subject, at about £20,000, compared to more than £45,000 for those in medicine and dentistry. With the student loan repayment threshold now rising to an income of £25,000, many may never repay their loans.
Against this backdrop, musicians and creative industry leaders, including the director of the National Theatre, Rufus Jones, are increasingly concerned that arts education is being stifled under the Conservatives, at the expense of the fabric of society and the economy in the long run.
Few graduates get to work directly in music, although companies in other sectors benefit from analytical and “soft” (social) skills they learn as part of their courses. As few as 140,000 people are directly employed in the music industry – less than 1% of the overall workforce, and a fraction of the 2 million in the financial services sector. Within that £92bn creative arts windfall, the music industry generates about £4.4bn a year, making it a tiny corner of Britain’s £1.9 trillion economy.
But, as the Brit awards show, its benefits ripple well beyond quantifiable economic output and give Britain soft economic power on the world stage. British recorded music exports are at their highest levels this century, driven by artists such as Adele and Coldplay. Meanwhile, the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of recorded music after the US – with as many as one in eight of all albums purchased around the globe in 2016 by a UK artist.
City University’s culture professor, Andy Pratt, says culture can drive consumption, which is worth billions to the economy. “Like with any education, if you’re only concerned with the immediate payoff then you may as well give up tomorrow,” he said, adding: “You don’t want to end up forcing everyone to be a lawyer or a doctor. There’s always a future for creativity, which creates an awful lot of jobs and taxes.”