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Play your part in Britain’s flourishing performance industry

The Independent
Today’s wildly diverse creative arts courses skilfully prepare students for gainful employment in theatre, film, TV and fashion, says Helena Pozniak

In terms of job security, former drama student David Hutchinson isn’t doing badly. Four years after he graduated with a degree in acting from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), his theatre company is staging a Christmas West End musical “Seussical” for a second year running. And the theatre company “Sell a Door” which he co-founded with fellow LIPA graduates has three further commissions in the bag. Not that this success has come without effort – as a student, Hutchinson was used to 12-hour days, learned his lines at weekends and committed to an extra writing course in his spare time. “You have to seize the bull by the horns – throwing yourself in makes you more employable,” he says. He also learned the nuts and bolts of filing a tax return and managing a big stage production as a student, as well as learning how to talk shop with choreographers and set designers. As with many smaller institutions dedicated to the performing arts, LIPA, co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney on the site of his old school, offers a cosier, more intimate experience than a large university. “We collaborated on putting on productions from the start,” says Hutchinson. “You were given space and encouragement to forge your own path.”

Three years after graduating, some 94 per cent of LIPA graduates are in work – and 87 per cent within the creative and performing arts industries. However, as LIPA principal Mark Featherstone-Witty notes, nearly three quarters of those in the UK working within creative and performing arts earn less than £21,000 a year, with many self-employed or involved in start-up micro-businesses.

But the UK’s sparky creative talent – evident in our street theatre, music, architecture, fashion and much more – has become a pedigree brand in the eyes of the world. As Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre noted at a CBI event this year, theatre has actually grown throughout the recession – largely due to its appeal to visitors from abroad. A recent report by independent charity Nesta estimates it accounts for one-tenth of the economy and employs some 2.5 million people directly and in related businesses – Britain’s creative sector workforce has recently grown four times faster than the workforce as a whole.

But creative and technology industries are engaged in a “war for talent”, says Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook VP EMEA, and for years employers within the industry say they struggle to recruit enough skilled staff.

So why do many students see the creative industries as hard, if not impossible, to penetrate? There’s no shortage of people wanting to work in television, film and gaming, or the performing arts, but getting a foothold requires initiative and endurance, often specialist skills, and very often the means to work for free.

Part of the problem comes down to ever evolving technologies and subsequent disruption of business models. This makes it difficult for universities to keep up, especially when the industry moves so fast that this year’s jobs didn’t even exist at last year’s graduation. Recently opportunities for special effects-related skills have soared in the so-called “golden age” of television, for example, with series such as fantasy saga Game of Thrones or the BBC’s gritty interwar gangster drama Peaky Blinders relying on computer generated imagery (CGI) for drama or poetic grime.

And employers historically haven’t understood the value of many UK degrees in creative arts: and small wonder says sector skills body Creative Skillset – at the last count there were some 22,000 “creative” degrees available. “Employers are faced with such a bewildering array of graduates coming to them; quite often they don’t know what these qualifications mean,” says Nicole Hay, accreditation and quality manager at Creative Skillset.

As an industry body, they’ve been working since 1990 with major employers in the creative sector – SKY, the BBC and Channel 4 among others - to give creative courses that are up to scratch a kite mark of approval. There are 30 or more accredited film courses nationwide, for instance. “But creative arts education isn’t neat and tidy, like the Russell Group universities – there’s no Oxbridge of the creative arts,” says Hay.

Some subjects form natural clusters - film schools excel in Edinburgh and London for example, but equally, different university departments nationwide might perform well. Hay recommends official website Unistats as a reliable indicator of good courses; the Complete University Guide ranks creative courses by subject based on among other things, student satisfaction surveys: and puts the top five universities for art and design for instance as Oxford, Lancaster, Newcastle, University College London and Brunel for instance, whereas Which? University surveyed students for the top creative universities and came up with Arts University Bournemouth, Goldsmiths University of London, Falmouth University, University of the Arts London and Bath Spa University.

Creative arts students tend to differ from peers on mainstream courses, says Hay. By the time they get round to applying through UCAS, they’ve already got a clear idea of where their niche lies – be it production or animation – and have located a course that fulfils very specific requirements. While RADA undoubtedly holds the crown of drama schools, training is classically based and won’t suit all, for instance, so going by reputation alone often doesn’t work.

A good place to start is Creative Skillset’s course and career advice - it accredits a huge range of industries from fashion to radio and television. Drama UK looks after drama schools and sister sector skills council Creative and Cultural skills covers industries such as craft, literature, music, performing and visual arts.

Currently a creative skillset delegation, with the backing of industry giants such as Betty Barclay, is on the ground, doing the rounds of the UK’s fashion schools, talking to students and academics to establish which courses best set up students for the needs of employers. A new batch of accredited fashion courses will be announced at the start of February. “It’s no longer enough just to have flair and creativity (as a graduate),” says Hay. “You need the whole package – an understanding of marketing, enterprise and technology – these are key needs across the whole of the creative industries.”

Managing creativity is the focus of a new and popular masters in creative and media enterprises at the University of Warwick; a course which aims to fill a management gap for many small creative and media enterprises. It’s not a business degree, says Warwick. “It encourages students to think outside the creative skills they have and how they are applied in entrepreneurial or business situations – it equips them to work in creative media industries,” says Dr Chris Bilton who founded the course – recent alumni have gone on to diverse projects such as creating independent music industry awards as well as to mainstream television and advertising.

Like many niche masters, Bournemouth University endeavours to forge industry links within its acclaimed National Centre for Computer Animation, where students have a chance to meet professionals from leading visual effects houses such as Framestore, DreamWorks and Double Negative among others. With a range of undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, the department spans the technical and artistic and attempts to marry the two – offering a couple of MAs in 3D computer animation and digital effects, and a more technology-focused MSc in computer animation and visual effects. While the more artistic courses tend to be over-subscribed, students on the less popular MSc all received job offers before graduation this year. Not to say artistic students – who need no prior technical knowledge – don’t come up against the rigours of technology – on any given day they might spend the morning trying to convincingly animate human movement or the afternoon learning programming and scripting techniques. While jobs are relatively scarce in animation and special effects – though more plentiful on the technical side – Britain, which competes against the likes of the United States, Canada and Australia – is sitting pretty, says Sofronis Efstathiou, BU’s postgraduate framework leader at the NCCA. With the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars films due to be made in Britain, and a growing demand from television – some production houses are opening new television departments, it’s a good time for the industry.

Often getting in to competitive courses depends more on having a beefy portfolio or film reel and less on academic performance – unless a course is more theoretical than vocational. At the Met Film School, based within Ealing Studios, applicants write a personal statement. “We reject roughly 30-40 per cent of applicants – those students who fail to convince us of their passion for film are the ones who don’t make it through,” says Lisa Neeley, director of student services and postgraduate programmes. Students at the school’s new MA Filmmaking Course at the Met Film School experience a baptism by fire – they begin with a five week stint in the school’s film laboratory, culminating in directing their own short film before choosing a specialism. They also learn to handle their nerves and make a verbal project pitch to a professional panel including film agents, producers and development executives. “The successful student will never stop making stuff within the programme and beyond it,” says chief executive Jonny Persey. “And you have to get yourself out there – go to every networking event you can manage: cold call and hot call. These days, with a bit of tenacity, a bit of insider knowledge and a bit of intelligence you can be in the right place at the right time.”

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