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Lyn Gardner: Ignore graduate salaries – arts enrich lives, if not your wallet

Creative arts graduates in Britain earn the least after university, claims a new report. Photo: Shutterstock Creative arts graduates in Britain earn the least after university, claims a new report. Photo: Shutterstock
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News that creative arts graduates earn 15% less than the average university leaver five years after graduation – and so may expect to have considerably lower earnings over an entire career – will not surprise many who work in theatre.

The report, carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on behalf of the Department for Education, points out that, while earnings of an Imperial College maths graduate were double the average, those graduating from Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts or Guildhall were as much as 50% below average.

Quelle surprise. I don’t think the IFS needed to be funded to tell us bankers earn more than set designers. Just like artists, of course, nurses and teachers also know that pay is not linked to value. As Edward Bond once asked: who is the more valuable? The chauffeured or the driver?

Rather than being scandalised by the fact that those who are most creative – and the most creative thinkers – are likely to be paid less, the IFS draws the conclusion that students should consider later-life earnings when picking their subjects at GCSE and A level. This will allow them to access degree courses with a greater financial return. I guess that’s what happens when you turn higher education into a market-place and sell the old canard that the purpose of a degree is to boost earnings.

This may also play to exactly what the Department for Education wanted to hear. It reeks of then education secretary Nicky Morgan’s assertion back in 2014 that children are held back by an over-emphasis on the arts and should eschew arts subjects for science and maths if they want access to the widest range of jobs.

The move away from the arts is happening in any case and, seemingly encouraged by government policy, with creative subjects increasingly banished from the curriculum. Only this week Andrew Lloyd Webber again expressed his disquiet at the cuts to music education in schools, making the very good point that learning an instrument is not about turning more children into professional musicians but “about empowering them in all sorts of different ways”.

He’s right. The point of an arts education is not to create more professional artists, but to enable the creative potential of every child, and that includes those who go on to do maths and engineering degrees. The idea that those subjects – and the careers they lead to – do not need creativity is ludicrous and suggests a lack of creative thinking by the government.

When St Marylebone School decided to devote 20% of curriculum time to the arts, spread across all subjects, the impact in raising GCSE results was transformative. Access to the arts and participatory arts activity has a positive impact on well-being, but also makes us more empathetic as individuals.

As Richard Eyre has observed: “The arts enable us to put ourselves in the minds, eyes, ears and hearts of other human beings.” Would you want to be treated by a doctor who had no empathy for their patients? Or have your city designed by someone unable to understand how that environment would feel to someone who was not just like them?

Up to 40% of current jobs may become automated, but a robot cannot replace an artist

In any case, when increasing numbers of jobs are becoming automated, including those such as accountancy that were considered solid jobs for life, it may turn out that running away to join the circus rather than joining a bank could be the better long-term career option.Particularly in the 21st century, when cultural and technological shifts are bringing about undreamed-of disruptions in our everyday lives – from how we shop and earn a living to what we do with our leisure time and how we interact with each other. It has been estimated that up to 40% of current jobs may become automated in the coming decades. But a robot cannot replace an artist.

Neither can money substitute for job satisfaction. Those working in the arts shouldn’t be as poor as they are, but many wouldn’t want a high-paying job in the city. There is a culture shift, particularly among millennials, who see work/life balance and career enjoyment as something they rate as highly as pay.

This is not an argument for not paying artists, not least because low pay and continued financial precariousness is a strong factor in deterring those who do not come from comfortable backgrounds from pursuing a career in the arts. Low pay is a significant and often under-discussed reason why theatre and the arts struggle to be more diverse.

But reports such as this one only play to the dominant government narrative: that children’s futures are secured by avoiding arts subjects. This frightens parents into pushing their children into decisions they may come to regret in choosing GCSE subjects. It could lead to a situation where we have a shortage of those with the creative skills necessary to imagine a new and better world.

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