Skip to content

It’s education, stupid. Or, how the UK risks losing its global creative advantage

It’s education, stupid. Or, how the UK risks losing its global creative advantage

3 August 2015 Written by By Faith Archer Journalist

This article is part of The Design Economy series.

Far and wide, Britain is recognised as a leading centre of design education and the creative industries – but could international employment opportunities, fees for higher education, silo-driven schools policies and visa issues destroy our creative advantage?

“We are currently in a golden era for design, and specifically British design,” says John Mathers, Chief Executive of Design Council. “The creative industries are outperforming the UK economy as a whole, and design is a key engine within this sector, with its contribution growing faster than any other part of the creative industries.”

Mathers is referring to the International Design Scoreboard created by the University of Cambridge, which ranks the UK as having the largest design sector in Europe (and the second largest in the world), and to figures issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that valued the UK’s creative industries at £76.9 billion in 2013 (nearly 10% up on 2012, and growing three times faster than the rest of the UK economy).

Around 40 miles south of London, Brighton has developed its own cluster of creative and digital businesses – sometimes called Silicon Beach. Research has identified a new category of high-growth firms within the cluster that are "fusing" creative art and design skills with technology expertise.


On the face of it, the numbers suggest that the UK’s design sector is in rude health. But there’s growing discomfort among the people in the engine room tasked with keeping the industry moving.

“We are at a fantastic moment with our arts and creative industries,” said John Kampfner, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation to the Guardian earlier this year. “You can roll off the amazing art galleries, museums, TV programmes that sell around the world, films, music, fashion, design, architecture; there is barely a sector that isn’t a world-beater at the moment.

“And yet we are at an incredibly dangerous moment. We are at a dangerous moment for public funding, a dangerous moment for creative education at schools and universities and we are at a potentially dangerous moment for our commercial companies. If we fail to think long term, if we fail to invest in our public spaces and cultural education, the talent pool that has projected us on to this level of the past 10 or 20 years will dry up.”

From STEM to STEAM – the power of an interdisciplinary education system

In January this year, the Warwick Commission released its Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth report.

The report highlighted “major concerns that the educational system is not focussing on the future needs of the Cultural and Creative Industries and the broader needs for innovation and growth in the UK”.

“There is a general agreement within the Cultural and Creative Industries and industry more broadly that the Government’s focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) should include the Arts (STEAM),” said the report.

Professor Jonothan Neelands, director of the report, told the Financial Times that too much focus on STEM subjects would undermine the “unique national creative character that combines business and the arts to make Britain such a successful country”.

The commission urged the government not to let the UK fall further behind in developing an education system that would “ensure that current and future generations have the technological, entrepreneurial and creative confidence and skills to drive economic growth”.

Frank Boyd, new media pioneer and Director of the Knowledge Transfer Network's Creative Industries, Design and Digital Economy programmes, agrees that the emphasis on STEM skills does not take into account that “what is driving success in businesses is a combination of design with STEM”.

He cites empirical evidence from the Brighton Fuse study of the cluster of creative, digital and IT businesses centred on Brighton. 

Conducted by the Universities of Brighton and Sussex with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the study revealed that the businesses that grew most rapidly combine – or “fuse” – creative design and technology in their work.

According to the study, “While Brighton’s creative, design and IT firms grew faster than the local economy and more than 10 times faster than the British economy as a whole, ‘fused’ business grew at more than twice that speed and ‘superfused’ firms grew faster still.”

One of the enabling factors that make this sort of growth possible is people with skills that can work across traditional silos.

The Design Council’s recent research into automotive manufacturing highlighted that the automotive sector, like other industries, is requiring designers with a larger skillset (particularly in user experience and interaction design) and seeking T-shaped people: those who have deep technical and creative skills but are also able to work across fields and collaborate with various suppliers and functions – from engineering and marketing to end users.

The Design Council’s research into automotive manufacturing found that the automotive sector – like other industries in our ever more connected world – is requiring designers with a larger skillset, particularly in user experience and interaction design.


While broadening the STEM approach into a STEAM strategy would help address this need early on in the education journey, there’s much that can be done at a tertiary level to introduce non-design students to the world of design thinking, as well as ensure that our higher education institutions produce the right sort of designers who are ready to work in this new way.

“At the moment, our education system can’t keep up,” says Mathers. “Industry is crying out for well-trained, work-ready designers. Our design schools are producing fantastic designers – but they remain a little wet behind the ears when it comes to understanding how to apply their design skills more strategically. There is a desperate need to combine real-world experience, interdisciplinary approaches as well as theory in the way we train our students.”

With this in mind, Design Council recently launched Design Academy, a programme for design students at UK universities that reaches beyond stereotypical interpretations of design.

Says Bel Reed, the programme manager, “Design Academy will complement existing design courses and expose students to material often not encountered until master’s level programmes.”

Each year Design Academy students will tackle a major societal challenge. Design for Care, a project to transform the health and care system for the twenty-first century, is the focus of the inaugural year. Design Council is working with universities including London College of Communication at University of Arts London, Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, Norwich University of the Arts and Nottingham Trent University.

Show me the money – financial support for home-grown talent

With the removal of grants and the introduction of tuition fees, there are concerns that some UK students, especially from lower-income backgrounds, are being priced out of creative courses viewed as non-vocational.

International students accounted for 15.6% of those studying creative arts and design in the UK during 2013–14, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Yet the proportion rises sharply depending on the establishment. Lawrence Zeegen, Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at London College of Communication (UAL), reports that, across the University of the Arts London, 48% of students are international, compared to 52% from the UK and European Union.

In the last five years the proportion of international students studying creative arts and design in the UK has risen by a third, up from 11.8% in 2008–09 to 15.6% in 2013–14, according to HESA. Looking back 20 years, the figure has more than tripled from 4.9% in 1994–5.


The opening of London College of Communication’s School of Design Summer Show this June drew crowds. The event features work from graduating students from BA programmes including Book Arts and Design, Design for Graphic Communication, Design for Interaction and Moving Image, Games Design and Surface Design.

At the master’s level, Zeegen says there has been a “dramatic decline” in the proportion of UK and EU postgraduate art and design students, partly due to the lack of financial support.

British undergraduates can take out government-backed loans totalling up to £27,000 to cover tuition fees for a three-year degree; similar loans for postgraduates worth up to £10,000 will become available from 2016–17, but only for people under 30.

Says Zeegen, “There are real issues with art and design education at home, with only £10,000 loans available for postgraduates, no real system for postgrads to find funding and limited support from the creative industries for their staff to return to education.

“After the financial meltdown, banks are also reluctant to lend to graduate students so they can fund their own living expenses.

“This means we are not providing high-level design thinkers to the extent needed to compete internationally in the future. There is a much greater appreciation of postgraduate study outside the UK, and a higher proportion of international students at postgrad level. The Chinese, for example, recognise that that experience counts for a lot.”

I am worried that unlike other UK sectors in science or medicine, the creative industries do not understand what a postgraduate or research student can bring to an organisation, in terms of depth of understanding and value of experience.

Lawrence Zeegen, Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at London College of Communication (UAL)

Professor Dale Harrow, Dean of the School of Design at the RCA and Head of its Vehicle Design programme, also reports that funding issues affect the student body at the RCA, which offers courses exclusively to postgraduates. At its School of Design, he says 40–45% of students are international and 55–60% home and EU.

“It is noticeable that home students are not coming here from their first degree in the same numbers,” he says. “There is a general trend for students to get some work experience and sort out their finances before coming back to do an MA, whereas 20 years ago students would have come straight from their first degree.

“For home students […] the challenge is to create more bursaries and sponsorships with industry to enable people to come here.

“We want to be able to take on the talent, not take on the money.”

Foreign affairs – competing for talent in a global design market

Boyd, from the Knowledge Transfer Network, says: “One of the big problems is the British attitude to immigration, which makes it more difficult to employ the best talent in the world.”

Visa changes that cut the time graduates can stay before going back to their own countries are a retrograde step, and will make the UK less competitive in an increasingly competitive market.

Frank Boyd, Director of the Knowledge Transfer Network's Creative Industries, Design and Digital Economy programmes

Typically, international students from countries outside the EU must apply for a Tier 4 student visa to study in the UK.

The post-study work visa, which allowed students to stay for two years post-graduation and look for work in the UK, was scrapped in 2012. (And since re-election this year, Prime Minister David Cameron has reiterated his commitment to drastically reducing net migration.) Tier 4 students now have four months after their course completion to apply for another visa or leave the UK.

In addition, Zeegen says it can be difficult for international graduates to meet the conditions needed for UK work visas. The post-study work visa was replaced by a Tier 1 visa for entrepreneurs, which requires access to at least £50,000 investment funds to apply.

To be sponsored for a Tier 2 work visa, employees need to earn a minimum wage level of at least £20,800, which can be difficult for recent graduates in the creative industries where unpaid or low-paid internships are the norm.

Zeegen says: “Unless international students make a very specific impact very quickly, they are unlikely to be able to stay in the UK, and will go back to China, Brazil, Australia, Korea or wherever.”

International students are drawn to design schools with global brands built up over generations — such as the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the turn of the twentieth century — that still foster cutting-edge creativity today.


Meanwhile, fees just to apply for a three-year Tier 2 visa cost graduates over £500 and up to more than £1,000 – and that’s with no guarantee of acceptance. (Applying for visas for employees from outside the EU also creates significant bureaucracy and expense for the sponsoring employer.)

Co-founder and Chief Executive of London-based digital production design company Ostmodern, Tom Williams (himself a graduate in graphic design from University College Falmouth) says, “We are happy to recruit anyone who is good to do the job and like people from lots of different backgrounds and perspectives. Our team is quite diverse, but getting visas for people from outside the EU is a particular challenge.

“We had a very talented Chinese graduate who could only work for us for six months, when we would have liked to retain him.

“Meanwhile another UK employee has just left us to go to another agency because he had the opportunity to go and work in New York, and could get sponsored to work there.”

According to Harrow, from the RCA, “It is easier in the US to get visas to work where you studied. Here it’s a static policy, where one size fits all. In the US, I have the perception that if they want you, they will find a way.”

Playing hard to get – is UK recruitment too passive?

“Overseas students looking at studying in the UK are attracted by the quality of the education and the opportunities for a strong career path,” says Harrow.

But Harrow is concerned that despite the strength of Britain’s design sector, it is neither sufficiently recognised nor supported.

“Internationally, the growing middle class in countries like China, Korea, Brazil and now India is creating a lot of work for designers,” he says. “These countries recognise that design is fundamental not just in terms of product development, but right across business and entrepreneurship.

“There is a global interest in design, and the UK is seen as a centre of excellence, but there will be huge problems in the world to come if we don’t appreciate that Britain is in a leadership position, and support it.

If the UK doesn’t take design education and the capabilities of design within industry more seriously, it will risk losing out in the long run.

The market for skilled designers has expanded beyond individual borders to become increasingly international, and many home-grown students now consider employment opportunities globally rather than locally.

Harrow says: “Realistically, UK students will go where the work is interesting and not necessarily be tied to a country.”

Citing a student of his who intends to work in Silicon Valley on autonomous cars, he continues: “Many don’t see a UK job as their primary goal. If you have lived in London, it can be hard to do a 9 to 5 job in a parochial place, when you could follow the best work to Rio or Paris.”

One of the most high-profile examples of a UK design student going on to international success is Jony Ive, now Sir Jonathan Ive and Apple’s Chief Design Officer.

The man behind the iPod, iMac, iPhone, iPad and most recently the Apple Watch studied industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University. As Harrow puts it, “Apple is a great example of how one designer can change a whole company’s fortunes.”


Jonathan Ive, promoted to Chief Design Officer at Apple this year, shows a MacBook Pro in this image from Gary Hustwit's 2009 documentary Objectified. A native of London, Ive was knighted in 2012 “for services to design and enterprise.”

Apple actively recruits British design graduates, and UK-trained staff account for “over half of the design team”, according to Harrow.

Zeegen, from UAL, says, “Apple is very proactive in coming to London to hire some of the best designers at very early stages of their career. Students are approached by Apple within a couple of years of starting work in London, before they’ve had time to put down roots.

“Apple sorts out their green cards, and then they spend the next eight to 10 years of their professional lives working in Cupertino.”

Chris Duggan and Samuel Bebbington, both graduates in graphic design from the University of Brighton, represent examples of talented British designers recruited by Apple.

Duggan spent more than six years with Apple in California, as a senior art director in packaging then associate creative director, before moving back to London, while more recently Bebbington joined Apple in Cupertino as an art director.

Like Apple, Google is a Silicon Valley tech giant with a reputation for a “vigorous” recruitment process to attract talented designers.

UK companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Dyson are celebrated as internationally competitive design employers, but there are concerns about whether many other UK companies are guilty of complacency.

Harrow says, “UK companies tend to sit on the fence, see who’s out there and dive on graduation.”

Zeegen also warns that the creative industries in the UK often presume “that the cream will rise to the top of the crop”, expecting “the best students to turn up at their door, looking for internships”.

He says, “Many have not woken up to working in partnership with design education, rather than picking off the best as they arrive at their doors.”

Harrow urges UK companies to “build a bridge between academia and industry”, saying that “a lot of UK companies see their job as to employ people, and the government’s job to educate people”.

“What’s changing is that companies recognise the need to identify talent early, support it and build a good career path.

“Employers can’t sit in their offices and wait for the best talent to come to them. Companies should attempt to engage with students earlier, through projects that enable them not just to meet the students but to present their company.”

Afraid of the big bad dragon? – competition from China

While the British government is pursuing a narrow focus on STEM subjects, in quest of the impressive test results delivered in China, the Chinese are concerned about the lack of creativity emerging from their education system and are beginning to recognise the value of the liberal arts.

The Chinese education system is “incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents and fostering the capacity and confidence to create”, according to Dr Yong Zhao, an expert on the Chinese education system and author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?a book on Chinese creativity.

As a result, China sends thousands of students to the UK or the US to learn innovation and “outside-the-box creativity”.

However, says Reed of Design Council, “International competition is increasing every year. With countries in the east embracing the rise of a design-oriented educational culture, there is a risk of being left behind.

“The number of design schools opening up overseas is increasing all the time – China has over 1,000, compared to just 78 here in the UK – and the quality of those schools will only improve as they move from ‘made in China’ to ‘designed in China’.”

Mathers sums up the situation:

The UK currently leads the world in design education. However, we simply must invest in our schools and skills base if we want to continue to be a world leader in this field.

John Mathers, Chief Executive of Design Council

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to keep up with the latest from the Design Council?

Sign up