News / Opinion

The art school application drop-off: why we’ve only got ourselves to blame

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Gemma Germains reacts to the news that applications to UK art and design courses dropped by over 14,000 in the past year.

I stopped giving careers advice because it bums me out. Talented kids stop, chat, then tell me they need to get a proper job. One girl, wanting to be a designer was off to study geology because there’s “money in oil”.

£84.1 billion. That’s how much the creative industries generate annually in the UK. Incidentally, our North Sea oil and gas industry cost the UK taxpayer £396m in subsidies last year. But it’s my job that’s a doss yeah?

This year, there are 14,000 less young people applying to study creativity in the UK. That’s potentially 14,000 less students, 14,000 less graduates and eventually 14,000 less designers, writers, art directors and studio founders.

It’s beyond a joke that the brand and design industry has an identity problem but we’ve only ourselves to blame. We feast on our young then moan about the skills gap.

Do you know how much a design apprentice gets paid? £3.50 an hour. I spend that on coffee. For that sum we expect proficient designers and content marketers with a working knowledge of SEO and basic coding skills.

And still we advertise in plain sight for unpaid interns and volunteer juniors, knowing full well that to do so is illegal. But who cares because intern culture is ingrained in us all.

Who would ever consider paying £9k a year to study art when faced with these insurmountable barriers to entry?

Our young people are underemployed. They’re making our flat whites and delivering our dinners by bike. Generations of graduate consumers are blaming their lecturers for not teaching them UX and CSS or whatever we as an industry decide is an entry level requirement these days. And why shouldn’t they? The average UK degree (plus living expenses) costs £22k a year. I’d expect to be bulletproof for that price.

Art school teaches us that there isn’t always a right answer. It teaches us to work things out for ourselves. Art school teaches creativity. It’s not supposed to teach us interview skills.

The graduate jobs market is like shooting fish in a barrel. We pick the most privileged, the whitest, the wellest, and still call it a meritocracy because these kids learned to code instead of supporting themselves and their families. I could argue the kids with privilege are the worst our industry has to offer because they’re consumed only with ticking boxes. But that would be unfair. We demand box tickers then moan when they can’t innovate.

We don’t offer support and we don’t offer sympathy. We’re painfully short-sighted, protecting what we were gifted and wrapping it up as graft. I’m here because of my privilege. Of cheap uni fees and £180-a-week Working Family Tax Credits that allowed me to support my kid and study. Because once upon a time we had a welfare state that allowed young people from council estates and single parent families to aspire to university. And I’m shook as hell that I look back on my dark days of teen pregnancy and rat-infested housing as the best our young have had for a long time.

Where’s your commitment to ongoing training? Where’s your diversity statement? Where’s your living wage? Bollocks to your apolitical apathy. Our welfare state has been dismantled and it’s future art directors and brand strategists who are evaporating before our eyes.

Who do you think is going to be fronting our presentations when we’re too old to do it? No amount of Palace and Supreme will mask the fact we’re old as hell in an industry that prizes youth above all.

Gemma is now content strategist at design agency, Uniform.