“I say this to students and their parents all the time,” says Professor Simon Robertshaw, Head of the School of Arts and Digital Industries at University of East London (UEL). “It's important to realise that the creative industry is the fastest-growing sector in the UK and now includes jobs that weren't traditionally considered to be under the umbrella of 'the arts', like technology, programming and engineering.”

“I tell students that this isn't just the capital of the UK. It's the cultural and creative capital of the world,”

In fact, the arts and digital industries field is changing so rapidly that further education colleges and universities are having to adapt in order to stay relevant. “Ten years ago, we would never have run a course in social media, for example,” says Robertshaw. “And look at the film and games sector, which is huge now.” To illustrate his point, he mentions that the world's best-selling entertainment title is actually a video game (and one created by a UK studio): Grand Theft Auto V, which has made $6billion in sales around the world. No wonder universities have added BScs in computer design and BAs in computer games story development to their portfolios.


Tutors are expected to have industry experience 


One way to ensure that universities keep pace with such a fluid sector is by building a solid network of industry connections in order to offer students placements in their chosen fields. Employing tutors with industry experience is a vital part of this, insists Robertshaw. “Students expect university-industry cross-collaboration these days and will ask: 'OK, so you run video games courses. But who are the tutors, what industry connections do they have and what placement opportunities and sandwich courses do you offer? 'Because they know that practical experience is like gold dust.”

Once, a student would start a three-year degree at university and come out the other end as a graduate with no experience. But that's not how it works any more, says Robertshaw. Indeed, he believes that practical experience is so important, that universities offering courses in the creative industries will need to find new education models before long. “A nurse at university will spend three-quarters of their time in hospital,” he says. “So why don't we apply that same reasoning to the creative industries? Some of a student's time should be spent at university, but they should also be out there at the coalface. I think things will change to a more blended approach — and that's exciting.”


Transferable skills in demand


Also exciting are the opportunities that London currently offers in the creative sector. “I tell students that this isn't just the capital of the UK. It's the cultural and creative capital of the world,” says Robertshaw. “Massive design firms are here; Amazon, Google, visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic, production companies and many, many more. Plus, the Dagenham film and TV studios – which is now under construction – will be the biggest film studio in the country. All these places are after talent — but they're after good talent.” That means people who know their own craft but can work collaboratively, pitch well and write well. “They want transferable skills,” notes Robertshaw.

Of course, a degree isn't a prerequisite for anyone interested in a career in the creative industries, but it may give students an edge over the competition. Perhaps more importantly, university is an opportunity to discover new things and find out where interests really lie. It's also a chance to change perceptions, says Robertshaw. “For example, new video games students might say: 'I want to make a game and I'm going to use 3D to do it.' But that's not what the games industry is about. It's actually about storytelling. So they need to start thinking up new stories and study stories in games that already exist. Changing notions of how the creative industries works is so important if students are to gain an in-depth understanding of the sector and find their place within it.”