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future directions for employability research in the creative industries

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A Working Paper by:

Linda Ball

Academic Developer (Employability)
Art, Design and Communication – Learning and Teaching Support Network
(now the Art Design Media Subject Centre of the HE Academy)
68 Grand Parade
Brighton BN2 9JY
01273 643119

Research jointly funded by:

The Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD)
The Employability Partnership
The Design Council
and the ADM Subject Centre
© March 2003

“The real assets of the modern economy come out of our heads, not out of the ground: imagination, knowledge, skills, talent and creativity.” (Charles Leadbeater, 1999).

“ In the modern world, employers crave new ideas and want risk-takers, lateral thinkers and creative problem-solvers, in short, people who can suggest solutions without requiring a full set of information upon which to base any decision. Art and design graduates have enormous potential in this respect and should be encouraged to develop and make the most of these elements that are ‘natural’ to the art and design environment and which respondents considered were well-developed on their courses.” (Harvey and Blackwell, 1999)

“At the heart of the issue is the dominance and need for integration of three key skills domains – imagination, evaluation and decision-making. There is a critical need to establish a platform of skills across the three domains through new policies, experimental structures, and initiatives at all levels from nursery to HE/FE and including lifelong learning, which help foster creative thinking and skills (questioning, collaborating, exploring and debating), entrepreneurship, cross-disciplinary application of knowledge and flexible self-learning.” (NESTA, 2002.)


In 1998, a consortium of 14 higher education institutions across Britain undertook a longitudinal study of the career paths of their graduates in art, craft and design, to find out in more detail what these graduates were experiencing and how well their courses prepared them for their working lives. The resulting report: Destinations and Reflections: British Art, Craft and Design Graduate Careers – The National Survey revealed a wealth of findings which contributed to the debate about how graduates could be prepared for and supported in their futures. This report was instrumental in informing changes to the higher education curriculum to address specific employability needs.

Four years on, the Destinations and Reflections Partnership have set aside funding, jointly with the Subject Centre for Art, Design and Communication

  • to broaden the scope of the initial research study to include subject disciplines entering the creative industries and
  • to identify key issues and models of good practice in relation to employability and graduates’ experience of the workplace.

This work was completed within the two month period January to February 2003.

This working paper reviews the current and future position in the light of changes in higher education, the labour market and graduate employment and draws on more recent research studies, curriculum developments and surveys. Finally, the paper makes recommendations for a future employability strategy for the sector and suggests new areas for research into employability.

Bearing in mind the relatively short timescale, and the generosity of response from the sector, it has not been possible to refer to all the research and resources available. I should like to acknowledge the numerous individuals who have taken the trouble to contribute. All contributions are being gathered into a resource to be made available on the ADM Subject Centre website over the coming months. All contributors will be acknowledged and will be invited to join an employability network with the purpose of sharing good practice.

Linda Ball
Academic Developer (Employability)
Art, Design and Communication – Learning and Teaching Support Network
(Now the ADM Subject Centre)


1. Introduction - Methodology

2. The changing context for higher education and graduate employment

Change in the workplace
Widening participation and social inclusion
Research, industry and the regional dimension
Employability and the curriculum
Employability and the creative industries

3. Revisiting ‘Destinations and Reflections’

Working patterns
Transition to work
Employer attitudes
Graduates’ attitudes, skills and aspirations
Financial reward and motivating factors
Lifelong learning and continuing professional development
Work experience
Career guidance
Priorities for employability research

4. New paradigms for employability learning – recommendations for future strategies

A new paradigm for creative subjects
The creative curriculum – collaborations between higher education and industry
Creative graduates
Creative enterprises
Creative skills and continuing professional development
Future strategies

References 1.


The Destinations and Reflections study of graduate career paths in art and design was the first study of its kind since 1972 years and generated a wealth of insights into graduates’ experience of finding work, their aspirations, what their courses equipped them to do and the complexities of their career paths. It revealed many positive aspects of the higher education curriculum, identified areas of concern and indicated where development might take place for the future, and it has since informed changes in the curriculum for supporting and encouraging graduates in this sector. The findings also contributed to a greater understanding of the ways in which the creative industries sector works. Following the successful launch of the findings of Destinations and Reflections, the agenda was further informed by a unique collection of papers : Planning the Future – Career and employment patterns among British Graduate in art, craft and design, (Dumelow, MacLennan and Stanley, 2000) which expanded on the challenges facing higher education in preparing its graduates for the creative industries. This publication has set the scene for the future.

Two years on, the author of this report recommends readers re-visit Planning the Future, as its forward thinking approach has currency not only for the creative industries agenda, but for the employability agenda across higher education as a whole. Many of the issues identified and changes to the curriculum discussed are now being addressed in practice, and not just in the creative industries sector. New working styles across many sectors of the economy involving complex work patterns are becoming well-established. This, coupled with the need for graduates to be more resourceful, independent and understand how the skills and attributes they have developed on their courses can apply in the workplace means that new models for learning, teaching and collaborations with the industry will need to be formulated, tested and evaluated.


This report is essentially a literature review relating to the changing context for higher education and the employability agenda in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This preliminary work is further informed by desk research and material gathered as a result of requests to the art, design and communication sector for:

  • findings of employability research
  • examples of good practice in curriculum development that encourages and embeds employability learning (including collaborations between higher education and arts organisations, professional bodies, careers services, employing organisations, and/or national and regional government agencies.)
  • exemplary models for CPD, work related learning, volunteering, live projects, enterprise and business start up, etc.

The response from the sector has been extremely good and a wealth of material is now being compiled into a resource to include research studies and examples of good practice to be made available via the ADM Subject Centre website.

The findings contribute to an understanding of the changing context for higher education, graduate employment and the creative industries and their inter-relationship. There are some regional differences, but this report provides an overview of trends across the UK and reviews the current and future position for employability learning in the light of changes in higher education, the labour market and the growth of the creative industries, drawing on more recent research studies, curriculum developments and surveys. Key issues are identified and these inform recommendations for future directions for employability strategies and research.

2. The changing context for higher education and graduate employment

It is important to begin by reviewing the context for employability in regard to
changes in the workplace, changes in higher education in relation to widening participation and economic development, together with new priorities for the preparation of graduates for work.

Changes in the workplace

Working lives are changing, bringing new possibilities in a knowledge-based economy, demanding different working patterns. The notion of a ‘graduate level’ job and a linear career path are no longer realistic expectations for the 21st century graduate in any subject of study, as graduates engage with a diversity of work, many working in smaller enterprises (SMEs), or on a freelance basis. Higher education needs to ensure that:

“Graduates have the right skills to equip them for a lifetime in a fast changing working environment.”
The rise of the ‘portfolio’ career is becoming an important feature of the workplace. A recent study of the career destinations of 230 arts and humanities research students revealed a high incidence (40%) of portfolio working since completing their doctorates with nearly one third of these in academia combining research and teaching roles, often on separate contracts. English graduates are having similar experiences with a significant number engaging in a range of different work roles simultaneously, particularly following graduation. The ‘portfolio’ career, it seems, is here to stay.

“To be able to manage these changes in the work place graduates need a set of desirable skills:

  • Interactive attributes: communication, interpersonal and teamwork
  • Personal attributes: intellect and problem-solving; analytic, critical and reflective ability; willingness to learn and continue learning; flexibility, adaptability and risk-taking. These are the attributes that help organisations to deal with change. An understanding of the world of work, some commercial awareness, and an appreciation of work culture.”

Recent thinking on employability places additional emphasis on the higher level problem-solving and decision-making skills as well as requiring graduates to be independent learners with a range of self-management skills. And this is especially important for effective management of a ‘portfolio’ work-style.

These employment trends are not new to graduates in art, design and communication, many of whom work in the creative industries sector – predominantly made up of freelancers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). As we know from the Destinations and Reflections study and other surveys, graduates entering the creative industries experience complex career paths involving a mixture of short-term contracts, employment, further study, part-time and freelance work rather than a predictable career progression.

Widening participation and social inclusion

Since the Destinations and Reflections study, higher education has expanded across the board, with creative subjects remaining popular. Registrations have risen in creative subjects by over 15% between 1997 and 2001, compared with a growth of 10.5% across all subjects, (HESA).

In the recent White Paper on the future of higher education the Government’s target of 50% participation of 18-30 year olds is clearly high on the agenda and admissions are clearly set to increase further. Financial incentives will be introduced to attract applicants from lower income families and measures to allow graduates to defer their debt until after graduation and the raising of the earnings threshold from £10,000 to £15,000 before repayments begin will considerably ease the situation. However, for the present, student debt is still an important issue and barrier for young people in their decision to apply to higher education and for graduates entering the workplace.

For the future, social inclusion initiatives will include raising young people’s aspirations, providing more flexible and attractive courses and qualifications that meet employers’ needs and a better progression between FE and HE. A major new cultural education initiative (£40m over two years) from the Arts Council of England – Creative Partnerships – is designed to create new and sustainable ways of including young people in the cultural life of their communities, nurturing their innate creativity and supporting teachers, artists, cultural and creative organisations and individuals to work with them. Not only is this creating opportunities for creative graduates, but encouraging young people to pursue a creative education.

Foundation degrees, designed in partnership with industry to meet the need for intermediate level skills are coming on stream and it is at this level that higher education will expand. However, progression to work or further study from these qualifications needs to be examined in practice and students need a clear understanding of the routes open to them and what a Foundation Degree will help them to achieve.

Research, industry and the regional dimension

Central to Government policy on higher education is the need:

“To improve the economic contribution that universities and colleges make through innovation, improving the skills of the nation and stimulating new businesses in an increasingly competitive world.”

Years of under-investment have affected universities’ ability to meet teaching and research targets and attract the best academics. New funding will be set aside to invest in universities’ capacity for research and to reward innovation in teaching. In relation to research and innovation, there are imperatives to forge stronger links with business and the economy and to make higher education more responsive to skill needs of employers. Collaboration with industry will have many benefits for enhancing the employability of graduates via work placements, involving staff (and students) in innovation, interchange of expertise, etc.

In the last two years, nationally and regionally, Government strategy on employment has targeted support for strategic initiatives for economic growth, supported by the Learning and Skills Councils, HEROBC and HEIF funding, drawing higher education and other agencies together on projects, many involving the creative industries.

It is becoming widely acknowledged that the creative industries make significant contributions to regeneration, social inclusion and the growth of all regional economies. For the future, the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) will be increased with £80m available in 2004-2005 and £90m in 2005-2006. Regional Development Agencies will be more closely involved in the distribution of HEIF funding. Funding will be targeted to supporting non-research intensive university departments in developing both knowledge transfer and skills development, and in reaching out not only to business but also to the regional and local economy.

In the creative industries sector, regional partnerships and initiatives are already well under way, involving higher education institutions, regional development agencies, regional arts boards, creative and cultural industries bodies and businesses around the UK. These regional partnerships support economic development and retention of talent, inform the region about skills priorities and opportunities, and support growth in a way which sustain creativity, fosters enterprise and improves competitiveness.

Employability and the curriculum

Changes in higher education and the labour market are having an impact on the future employability of graduates in all subjects of study. Widening participation means that students are now entering from diverse backgrounds, many with experience of the workplace. More needs to be made of the fact that, increasingly, students are arriving with valuable workplace skills, and those that don’t are very likely to seek part-time work throughout their courses to survive financially. These experiences give students a basic understanding of the workplace, are potentially enhancing for their futures but are not always acknowledged by academics as being important.

“At root, employability is about learning, not least learning how to learn. Employability is not a product but a process.”

What do we mean by employability• The employability of graduates is not just about what graduates have to offer in terms of their degree subject, personal attributes, skills, values and aspirations. It is a learning process. It is also influenced by external factors, such as the economy and trends in the workplace. So a matrix of factors impact on the employability of the graduate and a linear progression of (traditional) graduates through the higher education system to employment is no longer a suitable model, given recent changes in the workplace, changes in the student population and factors affecting them as they progress. These changes are discussed in the following pages to provide a context for identifying areas for employability research:

“There is a tendency to measure employability in terms of whether the graduate obtains a job of a specific type within a given period after graduation. This….only relates to the employability of new (full-time) graduates and is irrelevant as an indicator of the employability development of those already in work.”

If employability is seen to be an integral part of the higher education learning experience, it needs to be recognised and valued so that students develop the ability “to engage with opportunities, reflect and articulate their skills and experiences.” Work experience, volunteering and extra-curricular activities of all kinds have great potential for building students’ confidence in the workplace. Therefore a more ‘holistic’ approach is required to help students to value and apply these valuable attributes within their courses and in work-related activities.

Over recent years there has been a cultural shift and a growing awareness among academics of the need to develop students’ employability, evidenced by the many initiatives to encourage career management skills - at institutional level with employability featuring strongly in all learning and teaching strategies – and for the curriculum, accredited work-based learning, and projects funded by the Higher Education Innovations Fund (HEIF) and Higher Education Reach out into the Business Community (HEROBC). The move is away from bolt-on marginal and optional activities towards a more integrated approach to valuing employability in the curriculum.

Learning and teaching initiatives supported by the Fund for Development in Learning and Teaching (FDTL) and the Art, Design and Communication projects fund have encouraged and supported good practice in several employment related projects. Opportunities to embed employability learning within the curriculum have been considerably enhanced by learning technologies such as Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) and a range of projects which have developed good practice for the curriculum, such as Skillsplus 2000 which prioritises pedagogy as the means for integrating the recognition, application and development of employability skills within the learning milieu.

Skillsplus provides a theoretical rationale and a strategy for integrating employability learning and an integrated model for employability involving:

  • subject understanding,
  • subject specific and generic skills,
  • efficacy beliefs,
  • personal qualities,
  • and metacognitive fluency – the ability for strategic thinking.

This is an appropriate model as it can be used across all subject areas and has at its core self-theories and a student-centred approach.

In implementing employability learning, academic staff need to take into account the differences and distinctiveness of the creative industries, into which many of our graduates go, which may not always align with more generic expectations by HEIs of career outcomes. Other initiatives such as the Keynote project have developed resources on good practice in key skills, personal development planning and a work placement guide.

Examples of projects and models of good practice in relation to employability are being compiled by the ADM Subject Centre and will be provided on the website.

HEFCE support for encouraging employability and additional funding earmarked for enhancing employability is being coordinated by ESECT (Enhancing Student Employability Coordination Team) at the Generic Centre, Learning and Teaching Support Network. Their aim is to work with academics and careers advisers to shift the thinking and action on employability away from bolt-on marginal and optional activities towards a more integrated approach to valuing employability in the curriculum.

“The prominence of the employability agenda and the responsiveness of higher education institutions mean that there has probably not been a better time for employers to help enhance curricula and to make mutually beneficial links with higher education institutions. This is especially so for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).’

Enhancing Employability, Recognising Diversity provides an excellent literature review and rationale for integrating employability in the curriculum, illustrated with case studies of good practice, several of them in the creative industries.

Employability and the creative industries

The creative industries sector is currently one of the fastest growing areas of the economy, expanding at a rate of 16 per cent per annum. Creative industries are:

“those which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”

Creative industries include advertising, architecture, art and antiques, crafts, design, designer fashion, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, software and computer services, television and radio. According to the latest Creative Industries Mapping exercise, the UK is the top exporter of design worldwide; it has the fourth largest designer fashion industry in the world; its record sales market is the third largest in the world and is the market leader in Europe.

Recent Government policy for the arts recognises the contribution that creative professionals make to social, cultural and economic life and the need for a co-ordinated strategy for supporting the growth of this young industry linked with urban and rural regeneration. Creative industries have become significant catalysts for urban and rural regeneration and in the retention of talent in the regions. This signals the importance of nurturing and supporting creativity throughout education and into work.

The sector is predominantly made up of micro-businesses and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which have particular characteristics and needs. The basic requirements are for people with excellent generic skills in communication, networking and teamwork - individuals who can work flexibly with good interpersonal and research skills.

However, the small size of these enterprises means that the possibilities for placements and work experience are limited. In view of this, collaboration and links between creative enterprises and higher education in research and development and involving these entrepreneurs in student projects helps to raise student awareness of the potential of the industry.

Government initiatives to support new creative enterprises, particularly at start up are beginning to come on stream. The most recent proposals acknowledge the importance of nurturing young talent in that crucial period after leaving education, with graduate bursaries, mentoring, apprenticeships and incubation units to be administered by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Consequently, graduates will need to be capable and proactive, be able to plan their practice and formulate effective proposals, so that they can access this support.

In summary, the implications for the future are that graduates – whether working as employees or freelance - will need to:

  • plan and manage their careers effectively,
  • acquire excellent communication, interpersonal and research skills,
  • promote themselves effectively to find work and develop professional networks,
  • manage their time and plan their work with minimum supervision,
  • be able to take responsibility early on,
  • work well with others and
  • add value to an organisation in a short space of time

3. Revisiting ‘Destinations and Reflections’

This section revisits the key issues requiring further investigation from the ‘Destinations and Reflections study. In the main, subsequent studies raise many of the same issues. The purpose of this study is to look for findings that provide additional data on a particular theme, new information, or a different view and these are discussed. In view of the short time scale for producing this report, it has been important to be selective.

Finally, a summary is provided of the priorities for future employability research to inform employability strategies and curriculum design.

Working patterns

  • In the creative industries sector, graduates experience multi-faceted working patterns, especially early on in their careers. They have complex career paths – managing several jobs in different fields, often simultaneously. The ‘portfolio’ career for creative graduates is significant in all studies and there is a trend for graduates to move towards self-employment as their careers progress.

“Careers in the cultural industries typically involve flexible and entrepreneurially managed work patterns. Self-employment and salaried employment are often combined.”

  • Longitudinal research into art and design graduate career paths shows that they are flexible, adaptable problem-solvers, but take longer to establish themselves than other students – ‘longer but better’ – and they experience a high degree of satisfaction in their chosen work areas. They find work, predominantly, in creative occupations.
  • Encouragingly, graduates in art and design potentially have the employability skills required: communication, teamwork, interpersonal skills – alongside personal skills, attitudes and abilities, including intellect, willingness to learn, ability to find things out, flexibility and adaptability as well as self-skills such as self-motivation, self-assurance and self-promotion.
  • Recent research into the employment of media studies graduates shows that they work in a wide range of jobs, not just in media and journalism. They develop valuable critical, intellectual and general skills on their courses. The courses integrate theory with practice which is seen as a major strength. The contemporary nature of the knowledge media students have, plus a broadness in outlook, flexibility, self organisational skills and confidence gained from research for presentations, project management and production work make them particularly attractive to employers.
  • Similarly, graduates in art and design history enter a wide range of occupations, both within and outside the cultural sector. Within their disciplines, they develop valuable intellectual skills in research, analysis and critical thinking as well as aesthetic intelligence. They experience the same problems that many humanities graduates face which is lack of self-belief and poor awareness of the wider value of their studies and its relevance to the workplace.

It is worth revisiting the summary of employment data from Destinations and Reflections. The relevance of these findings are discussed later in this paper, with regard to the distinctive characteristics of the creative industries and how they might be better supported.

  • Encouragingly, low numbers experienced unemployment (4.9%), and about half (52%) were in full-time salaried work. In some disciplines, more than others, the heavy reliance on a self-employed and freelance workforce is a key feature of the creative industries.
  • Over two thirds of those in employment are working in small and medium-sized enterprises
  • 8% on fixed term contracts
  • 70% had worked in one or more full-time, permanent contract jobs since graduating.
  • 42% self-employed at some point
  • 94% of self-employment is related to art and design
  • 20% currently self-employed freelance or working on commissions, sometimes alongside salaried work.
  • There are variations across subject areas reflecting the different work patterns in sub-sectors:
  • Design graduates are more likely than fine art to be in full-time permanent work
  • Fine artists more likely to be employed part-time
  • Fine artists more likely to have taken further study than design
  • 3D most likely to have own businesses
  • Nearly half of graduates in product, industrial and furniture design were involved in their own businesses, working freelance and doing commissioned work.
  • Photography, film and tv were the largest group doing a professional course.
  • Nearly one third of 3D and Fine art graduates went into teaching and lecturing

Differences between groups

  • Women are unlikely to think of IT as an area for possible careers.
  • Mature students are less likely to be in paid employment, but more likely to be self-employed.
  • Ethnic minorities are more likely to be in permanent employment and are more likely to be unemployed.
  • Women are more likely to be supported early on in their careers by family income.
  • There is a tendency to take low-level jobs immediately after graduation, and involvement in major non-art and design sectors of retailing and hotel, catering and leisure decreases over time as careers converge back to art and design. This is evidenced by increasing involvement in the design and publishing sector as time progresses with only 20% of graduates involved in work that is not at all relevant to art and design.
  • This concurs with the finding that initially, a higher proportion is doing non-art and design related work earlier on in their careers and that this diminishes over time as they find more related work.
  • A recent study of English graduates found a similar pattern: 3-4 years after graduation a high proportion had moved into ‘professional’ jobs. This pattern is not confined to new graduates. A study of research students’ career paths found that first positions tended to be lower paid stop-gap jobs.

Transition to work

  • The Destinations and Reflections study and other graduate surveys showed that graduates find the transition to work difficult and are slow to get started.
  • Graduates have poor professional, personal and career management skills, such as networking, research skills and ability to research and access information that will be helpful to them in their future careers. The period immediately after graduation is crucial.
  • For many new graduates, isolation and lack of contacts seriously affects confidence, linked with paying off debs and pressure ‘to get a proper job.’ This often results in a decline in self-motivation. As esteem needs are not being met, higher level needs such as self-expression and creativity are seriously affected and there is very little activity in these areas.
  • Graduates use this time to support themselves with what they might call unrewarding salaried work whilst setting up in freelance practice or developing a portfolio. They engage with voluntary or unpaid work to gain experience, undertake part-time study or training, develop contacts and improve their job prospects.
  • Graduates adopt flexible ways of working on contracts and freelance commissions whilst establishing themselves, interspersed with periods of economic inactivity.
  • Artists, in particular, have a predisposition to engage with work of social and community value, often low paid or of a voluntary nature and this has been the subject of recent studies.

Employer attitudes

To what extent do employers value the skills and knowledge that graduates bring to the workplace and what are their expectations?

  • The creative industries sector relies on creative individuals who can think differently, formulate questions and solve problems.

“ In the modern world, employers crave new ideas and want risk-takers, lateral thinkers and creative problem-solvers, in short, people who can suggest solutions without requiring a full set of information upon which to base any decision”

  • Employers, graduates and academic staff alike are often unable to recognise and articulate the important intellectual and skills developed in creative subjects in higher education. Yet employers of graduates in creative subjects value their education and what that brings. What differentiates them from other subject areas is the focus on developing their critical and creative abilities and their imagination. A discussion of the wider learning outcomes for creative graduates can be found later on in this report.
  • Research into skills development and the expectations and needs of graduates and employers in the creative industries in the north west found that employers expected that graduates should develop a sense of commercial awareness throughout their higher education. Employers considered the most important skills and attributes to be communication, working with others, IT, research, self-development and problem-solving. A key finding of this study is that there is a distinct mis-match between the skills development in HE and the expectations and needs of graduates and employers in the creative industries. From the employers’ viewpoint, higher education is not producing the graduates with the skills and attributes it is looking for.
  • The majority of employers of designers are happy with the supply of graduates they employ, but some identified dissatisfaction with graduates’ basic design skills, literacy and mathematical ability as well as business awareness. Poor standards are associated with decline in the use of visiting practitioners and lack of critical team-working to mirror industry practice.
  • A study of media studies graduates’ expectations of work found that they are valued by employers for:
  • The contemporary nature of the knowledge
  • Broadness of outlook
  • Flexibility
  • Self-organisational skills
  • Confidence gained from researching for presentations and production make Media Studies students particularly attractive to employers. The combination of theory and practice were also seen to be beneficial.

“Whilst giving students practical skills of use in the media industry, the balance of theory and practice developed analytical abilities to use in wider fields.”

  • Employers seek creative individuals who can bring new thinking to their businesses. Yet, graduates sometimes complain that they are not always encouraged to apply their intellectual skills in the workplace.
  • Employers are not always familiar with what courses do, or they have misconceptions about the knowledge, skills and understanding that graduates should have.
  • Employers want better links with HE to develop mutual understanding and for an interchange of expertise between HE and the workplace.
  • Employers view work placements or experience an essential requirement, to enable students to develop valuable workplace skills and apply their learning in practice.

Graduates’ attitudes, skills and aspirations

  • The majority of graduates experience high levels of satisfaction with the quality of work they have been doing since leaving university.
  • Undergraduates generally have high expectations of working towards an ideal job and unrealistic ideas about what they will be doing immediately after graduation. A more recent study found that aspirations tend to become less optimistic – and more realistic – as they progress to the final year. There are a number of possible explanations for this and one might be that paying off debt with any job is a priority after graduation before graduates can focus on their longer-term career aims.
  • They see themselves as unlikely to have to undertake further training – although this contrasts sharply with findings that career paths are enriched by acquiring new skills and learning new techniques. In reality, post-graduation they continue to learn and take advantage of or request additional training and support.
  • Those that are self-employed are intending to continue and there is evidence to show settled career patterns – albeit multi-stranded – only a few years after graduation. A study of creative entrepreneurs found that self-employment is rarely seen as a step to employment.


  • tend to feel unconfident about the skills they have and under-estimate the importance of written and numeracy skills.
  • find it difficult to recognise important transferable skills and how they might be useful in the workplace.
  • identify deficiencies in team-working, negotiating, self-promotion skills.
  • lack understanding of the steps they need to take to become self-employed.
  • Other findings support this with the addition of a need to acquire skills in IT and career management, opportunities for links with industry and networking skills.
  • Self-reliance and coping with uncertainty were felt by graduates to be important areas to be encouraged.
  • Media studies graduates were very positive about their degree programmes and what they equipped them to do. They particularly valued the hands-on practical and media specific skills which are a requirement for the particular jobs they were doing; for example, being able to take a recording to an employer as evidence of what they could do.
  • Given the high proportions working as self-employed, the inadequacy of enterprise skills is an area for concern in all studies and those skills required to manage a portfolio work-style – time management, strategic thinking, self-efficacy, confidence, self-promotion and negotiating skills.

Financial reward and motivating factors

  • There is cause for concern about pay supported by evidence that graduates working in the arts and humanities are the lowest paid of all subject areas. Within this sector, artists and creative professionals, in particular, have a strong tendency to operate on a value system that prizes creative expression over financial reward, with a high degree of involvement in voluntary work or unpaid work experience which they see as career enhancing. The consequence is that creative graduates – particularly females - are still highly dependent on financial support from their families. Of all groups in the creative industries, artists in particular experience low pay.

“Artists live on lower than average incomes…evidence that income levels grow, albeit rather slowly the longer graduates have been in the labour market.”

  • In all surveys, the majority of creative graduates are earning less than £15,000, with a tiny proportion earning over £25,000 several years after graduation. High earnings expectations do not feature as a reason for course choice. However, undergraduates have a tendency to over-estimate how much they will be earning. More than half of the undergraduates taking part in a study of students attitudes thought they would be earning more than £20,000 three years after graduation, whereas only 13% of the Destinations and Reflections cohort were actually earning more than that. Only one third of respondents in one study were happy with their earnings. The raising of the earnings threshold from £10,000 to £15,000 for the payment of higher education fees and repayment of loans will be a welcome development for graduates in this sector.
  • There is evidence to show that earnings differentials for the creative industries sector follow gender patterns for those in all subjects, in favour of males. Mature students are less likely to be in paid employment, and more likely to be self-employed. Graduate debt is another important factor that can delay graduates’ career development as they take any job on graduation to pay off overdrafts. Some students will complete their courses with debts of up to £10,000. The majority of students in one study were found to have debts in excess of £5000.
  • Large numbers of people in creative occupations are self-employed or engaged on temporary contracts. There is general recognition of the precarious nature of employment in the sector and the relatively modest financial rewards obtained. Yet, the creative sector is a prime contributor to social and community development, improving the fabric and quality of life of urban and rural areas, thus stimulating economic growth. It is not only the low salaries experienced by creative graduates, but also the reliance on an unstable and disadvantaged work-force that is predominantly self-employed that gives cause for concern in maintaining the growth of the creative industries.

Lifelong learning and continuing professional development

  • There is evidence that creative graduates continue to learn throughout their lives. Around half of graduates had undertaken a full or part-time course which they saw as enhancing their job prospects. In the creative industries, in particular, workers adapt, change direction and offer flexible services, many without the benefit of a large employer to foster their development, continuing professional development is essential for success.
  • Although business, IT or management studies were considered to be areas of deficiency, there was little take up in these areas, indicating that current provision may not be appropriate. This is confirmed by other studies including a recent study of 390 creative professionals in the south east region which demonstrated keen interest and belief in the value of training, with 60% undertaking some training in an average year, but a further 53% did not feel that their needs were being met.


  • Artists in particular make a valuable contribution to education at all levels, and to the quality of life in schools and encourage creativity. This contribution is beginning to be acknowledged and recent research concluded that:

“artists can be politically and socially motivated and, whereas some artists engage in ‘collaborative’ activities in order to develop their individual practice, others are working to empower particular individuals or communities.”

  • The Destinations and Reflections Study found that 11% of graduates were employed in education at the time of the survey; and 24% have done some teaching since graduation. The highest take up (nearly one third) was by 3D and fine art graduates. In the Middlesex study, almost half of respondents were teaching. A combination of teaching and professional practice is common and very few are teaching full-time. In the Destinations and Reflections study, only 7% were full-time teachers or lecturers.

Work experience

  • Increasingly, graduates are expecting to have some experience of the workplace as a desirable element of their degree courses.
  • The majority of students undertake ad-hoc work experience external to programme of study. 60% work term time and 80% in the vacations. In the Destinations and Reflections study, work experience had a positive impact on finding work – both for those going into employment and working freelance.
  • A survey of graduates from 27 HEIs across the UK found that work experience during higher education, in particular that related to study, has a positive effect on employment outcomes for graduates – particularly in the humanities.
  • Large amounts of work experience unrelated to study appears to have a negative impact on finding work, and graduates found that they did not use the knowledge and skills developed during higher education to a great extent in their present careers.
  • In the Destinations and Reflections study graduates rated related work experience and placements highly but said that there were insufficient opportunities on courses. This, coupled, with poor careers guidance had a negative impact on preparedness for work.
  • In the Media Employability Project employers, graduates and academics saw work experience as desirable in order to understand the industry and as a means for recruitment.
  • Effective learning from work experience implies that it needs to be meaningful or relevant to future career choice, that the learning is planned and intentional from the outset, possibly using a structured learning framework such as learning contracts, projects and/or a portfolio of evidence to include reflection and articulation about what has been learned. Ideally it should be formally assessed and accredited as part of the higher education experience. Quality monitoring involves commitment and contribution by all: higher education institution, course, student, academic and employer.

Career guidance

  • Poor and inappropriate career guidance is a common barrier, not just in the creative sector of higher education. English graduates lacked relevant career information and training and would like to see improved coordination between careers services and Departments.
  • The recent Higher Education Careers Service Review recommended that in response to changing employment and career patterns, students need to be better informed with up to date career information, access to a broader range of options, with more discerning and sophisticated guidance tools, as well as for personalised, impartial guidance to help them to make the right choices.
  • Institutions need to take a strategic approach to exploring the role of specialist careers advisers in relation to both students and the curriculum, and appropriate use of their expertise in helping to prepare students for work. Improvements in careers advice and preparation for the realities of working life will be welcomed by graduates. Exemplary models for exploring collaboration between academics and careers professionals need to be explored.
  • However, two recent staff development workshops involving careers advisers discussing barriers to encouraging employability suggested there was resistance amongst some academic staff. They felt that staff were not interested in what happens to graduates; saw employability as a separate activity; were not welcoming towards careers advisers; did not see preparing graduates for work as part of their responsibility in an already crowded curriculum.
  • Careers advisers suspect that experience of the workplace is too remote from staff experience – and staff may not have very good employability skills themselves and therefore lack confidence in ‘teaching’ employability. Academic staff express similar views about careers advisers. There is clearly a need for both academic staff and careers advisers to be educated about developments and opportunities in the workplace through more involvement with the world of work.
  • So often, there is a tension in the academic environment between the pursuit of creative practice for its intrinsic value and preparing graduates for employment.

Priorities for employability research

The priorities for future employability research relate predominantly to:

  • the student experience and
  • progression from entry to post-graduation.

New data in these areas will help to inform future strategies and curriculum design.

There is clearly a need for further qualitative and quantitative research that informs us about the graduate experience, particularly in that crucial period shortly after graduation. Interestingly, there is to be a change in the timing of Higher Education First Destination Returns. These are normally gathered by careers services in the period up to six months after graduation, and from 2004 will be collected 2 years after graduation. This dramatic change in policy and practice has a number of implications:

  • Returns collected two years after graduation will probably reflect a more accurate picture of career potential as graduates become more settled in their chosen careers. It is unclear as yet whether graduates will be asked to chart their career paths up to this date.
  • The transition from higher education remains an important issue, in relation to debt, loss of confidence and motivation, and further data is required to understand the difficulties graduates face and inform improved strategies that can be put in place to provide support pre- and post-graduation.

It is in the light of these changes that the following areas for research are proposed so that we can improve understanding of the experiences of different groups and their needs.

Longitudinal studies of the career paths of:

  • non-practice based graduates in arts and cultural heritage (possibly in collaboration with humanities sector)
  • mature students and career changers
  • disabled students
  • ethnic groups
  • men and women – separate studies.

In particular, studies about student progression to work or higher education from new qualifications, such as Foundation degrees will provide important information for future planning.

There are other areas of concern:

  • The student experience of higher education – the experience of the transition from creative courses and resulting behaviours
  • Attitudes and career aspirations of students and graduates
  • Graduates who leave or never enter the ‘arts’ labour market

Effects of graduate finance and debt on career aspirations in the creative industries

The new employability agenda is discussed in the next section in relation to the remaining important issues and how they might be addressed:

  • creativity
  • the curriculum
  • collaboration with employers and work experience
  • academic staff development
  • the role of careers advisers
  • employer attitudes the characteristics, image and pay levels of the creative industries
  • and the needs of creative professionals for continuing professional development.

Link to Part 4 and references