The Price is Right: why doesn’t uni teach creatives how to value their work?
Alec Dudson, founder of Intern, explains why this core skill still remains largely absent from creative education, and the impacts of that omission – plus, how you can change that.
- Alec Dudson
- 14 September 2020
Did your university course teach you how to price your work? In most cases, it won’t have done and for the life of me, I can’t help but find that infuriating and frankly, unacceptable.
Over a three-year programme in the UK, domestic students are typically faced with tuition fees of £27,000. Double that (and add some more for good measure) if you’re an international student. With a maintenance loan of between £35,000 and £40,000 claimed along the way, going to university is a “dear do” as my mum would put it.
If you studied a creative subject at university, you’ve probably faced the eye-rolling and the assertions from family members that although enjoyable, those degrees will not secure you a job, or at least not one that comes with a decent wage. Creativity simply isn’t valued the same regard as STEM subjects in recent history. These negative perceptions only become reinforced as creative subjects in schools are starved of focus and investment by successive Conservative governments.
This of course, despite the creative industries contributing £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018 according to the latest government figures. That’s £306 million every day, almost £13 million an hour. The creative economy has long been growing at a faster rate than the rest of the economy and despite the hit from Covid-19, is in many regards, agile and well-positioned to hatch a plan of recovery.
So, if the words of Sir Ken Robinson and countless others are to be disregarded and we’re to entertain the idea that a creative career is more precarious to pursue, why are nine out of ten creative students (according to my research) not receiving any insight into how to price their work?
Why unis don’t cover the subject
A practice-focused approach to arts education is nothing new and of course, honing your craft and finding your voice as a creative is a really important process. With most programmes running for three years (or four with a year in industry), surely there’s room in the curriculum to cover pricing and other, vital entrepreneurial skills?
I’ve worked in universities for five years now, in both a contracted and casual capacity. It’s rare that programmes have a ‘professional practice’ module embedded and when they do, it seldom runs across each of the three years. In cases where there is no module-level provision, career departments and employability teams are left to pick up the slack. The work they do is always incredibly important, but it’s just not realistic to think that they can achieve the same level of engagement as the taught and assessed programme, given that they’re restricted to sign-up sessions and ‘employability weeks’.
Changing course content at universities is, unsurprisingly and necessarily, a long-winded process. All module content has to be checked in detail by quality departments to ensure that it is congruent and consistent. The process of approving major changes to modules — revalidation — can take around a year. It’s not an impossibility though as Claire Lockwood, head of the visual communication department at Nottingham Trent University explains: “you can make changes fairly quickly within a module, so long as the learning outcomes allow it”.
Ultimately, if a university has no existing focus on pricing, it will either take some creative module interpretation on the part of lecturers — though without any clear direction from above this is unlikely — or more likely the senior management team of the institution to outline this as a strategic move for the institution. This means starting conversations with the chancellors and vice-chancellors, to impress on them the vital role that understanding your worth has on your career moving forwards.
I started Intern because students and graduates alike were routinely being exploited through unpaid work. It’s long been my belief that both universities and the industry perpetuate that system. You’ll always find a business or individual who is willing to take advantage of someone by offering them unpaid work and while I find that deeply disappointing, I have to be a realist. What’s even harder to stomach in some respects is universities who, despite being fully aware of the issue, do little to effectively counteract it.
If you teach someone to price their work, to understand the value that it has, then you are fundamentally making it less likely that they’ll be exploited, either as a freelancer or working in-house. If instead, you tell someone a price for a piece of work, that’s a band-aid. What they need to know is how that price has been calculated, what it takes into consideration and how they can apply a similar rationale to a range of products and services.
When institutions fail to cover this topic and refuse to arm their students with these core skills they actively contribute to higher levels of anxiety around job security, lower confidence amongst graduates and actively fuel that narrative of creative careers not being a considered a “real job”.
Successful creatives earn an enviable income, can achieve a positive work-life balance and find great fulfilment in what they do. It’s time for universities to move towards a mode of teaching that properly arms their graduates to navigate the creative industry effectively. If they don’t, then they face the very real prospect of future generations of learners considering different routes into the industry. With alternative and independent providers growing fast, it might not be long until we see them claim significant market share.
If you are currently studying and your course doesn’t contain any professional practice modules or content, then your first move should be to familiarise yourself with the careers department. Start a dialogue with them and tell them what skills you need support in developing. My contention is, of course, that pricing should be on that list.
It may not result in anything changing, but you should also ask your lecturers. They may be able to provide some ad-hoc support or build that into a module without a re-write and all of the logistical hold-ups that come with it.
Whether at university, graduated or making your own way into a creative career you should actively look for alternative, reliable sources of information and learning opportunities. If you’re an illustrator, the AOI has a range of resources available (some free, some for members) that can help you to understand the wide range of considerations and factors that will give you a firm foundation to work from. As a photographer, there are lots of different ways to price your work and how you approach that will likely depend on the nature of your work. Format has lots of free resources available. This piece is a good start point and is packed full of links to other useful articles. For artists, Alan Bamberger has written extensively on pricing and has a free-to-access overview here as a good start point.
If you’re a graphic designer, we’ve just released an online course at Intern covering the pricing process from start to finish. Rather than try to convince institutions year after year of the value and necessity of this subject matter, we’ve made an expanded programme available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
I doubt that this article will shame any senior management into fundamentally reviewing their degree programmes, but I do hope that it convinces you how important it is to learn how to value your work. If there’s someone out there with a career that you’d love to emulate, reach out and ask them about pricing. You’re far more likely to get relevant, up-to-date and helpful insight than if you wait for your university to change its ways.
If you’re a graphic designer and don’t know where to start when it comes to pricing you can enrol on The Price is Right for just £49.99 and get immediate access to hours of video instruction from Alec covering rate setting, pricing strategies, confidence, negotiation, contracts, invoicing, chasing payment and much more. Click here to sign up and you can start building the tools that you need for a sustainable freelance design career today.