Fatima’s next job won’t be in cyber: Creative workers and education during the pandemic

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Fatima’s next job won’t be in cyber: Creative workers and education during the pandemic

Library balcony with shelves of books curving away into the background
© Photo: Susan Q Yin, Unsplash

By Tal Feder
Mark Taylor
Dave O’Brien
Siobhan McAndrew


In this post, we use the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey to explore how creative workers responded to the pandemic by developing their qualifications and education.

During economic crises the demand for education increases. Workers spend their time strengthening their skills to get an advantage in their profession - upskilling - or, alternatively, investing in acquiring new skills that will allow them to change their occupation - reskilling.

Previous posts have shown the collapse in working hours and the job losses for workers in key creative occupations. We now need to ascertain whether creative workers are reskilling, to find new jobs, or upskilling, to make sure they are well placed to develop their creative careers as the sector reopens and hopefully recovers.

We find that creative workers have been enrolling in education as a response to the crisis in hours and in jobs. The evidence suggests they have been upskilling, taking arts-related education courses to bolster their skills ready for a return to work.

Upskilling or reskilling as a response to the crisis?

We will look here at three groups of workers: (1) Core creative workers; (2) Other creative workers; and (3) Non-creative workers (Table 1). If workers are reskilling we should expect our core creative workers, hit the hardest by the pandemic, to be enrolling in educational programmes outside of those associated with creative occupations. Evidence of upskilling comes if core creative workers are enrolling in creative related education and higher degree educational programmes.

Table 1

Core creative occupations Other creative occupations
Film, TV, video, radio and photography Advertising and marketing
Museums, galleries and libraries Architecture
Music, performing and visual arts Crafts
Publishing Design: product, graphic and fashion design
IT software and computer services

Figure 1 shows that, in 2020, the proportion of workers enrolled on either full-time or part-time education courses (excluding for leisure purposes) was higher than in recent years. The increase in 2020 bucks a relatively steady negative trend in non-creative workers enrollment in education and is more marked for core creative workers.

Figure 1: Workers enrolled on education courses

It is important to note that this is still a small proportion of the total number of core creative workers. However, the uptick in the numbers suggests a clear response to the sector’s economic crisis.

Choice of subject

We turn now to look more closely at enrollment on arts-related education, a category that includes various creative fields: fine arts, music and performing arts, audio, visual and media production, design, crafts, and general art programmes.

Figure 2 shows that the proportion of core creative workers enrolled in arts education (out of the workers enrolled in any education) is similar to that of 2019, if not even slightly larger. The estimates demonstrate an increase of around 5% in the enrollment in arts education among core creative workers. However, the sample size is small and we should be cautious when drawing definitive conclusions.

Figure 2: Proportion of art education enrollments

We also estimated the number of workers enrolled in arts-related education. This is in order to verify that the observed increase in the fraction of workers enrolled in arts education is not simply a result of the shrinking of the cultural workforce due to job losses and workers leaving during the pandemic. We presented data on the job losses in our previous blog posts. Our estimates, illustrated in Figure 3, show that this is not the case. Even with the contraction of the workforce, the observed increase in arts education is also apparent in absolute enrollment numbers.

Figure 3: Overall numbers of art education enrollments

In Figure 4, we zoom in on the four most popular study fields as they appear in the ONS coding. The bar graphs depict the distribution of studied subjects. Keep in mind that the total number of workers enrolled in 2020 is higher than in the previous years, so small increases in proportion represent an even more pronounced increase in absolute numbers.

We merge all the creative workers into one group in this graph since some of the categories contain a small number of respondents. We find no dramatic changes in the proportion of creative workers enrolled in different educational programmes. The most pronounced changes over the period are not among cultural workers enrolled in arts courses. Instead, since 2017, we can see increases in enrolments in social sciences programmes, and decreases in enrolments in humanities programmes. This result indicates once again that creative workers are not turning in big numbers to other fields of study to train themselves in alternative occupations.

Figure 4: Subject choices of all creative workers enrolled in education courses

Postgraduate and specialist skills

Creative workers tend to have higher levels of educational qualifications than the average worker and are more likely to attain postgraduate degrees. Figure 5 shows the level of degree programmes that workers who study art-related subjects are enrolled in. It suggests that the impact of the pandemic has been to motivate core creative workers to extend their art-related education.

Figure 5 shows that, consistently over time, the proportion of creative workers studying for arts-related postgraduate degrees is about double that of other workers. In 2020, for the first time since 2015, the number of core creative workers studying for an art-related higher degree (66%) surpassed that of undergraduate degrees (27%).

Figure 5: level of qualification being studied


In October 2020 a government advert with a picture of a young ballet dancer and the headline “Fatima's next job could be in cyber (she just doesn't know it yet)" went viral in the media, receiving a large amount of backlash. The ad was read by many as a recommendation from the government that artists change their profession, against a backdrop of concern over the future for creative industries.

The pandemic does seem to have pushed many creative workers to think about their professional future and enroll in educational programmes. However, it seems that the goal of the educational activity of those core creative workers most impacted by the pandemic has not been reskilling for alternative professions but rather upskilling to reap the possible benefits of more education within creative occupations. In June 2021 ONS published the LFS statistics for the first quarter of 2021, and this data showed the continuation of the upskilling trends seen in 2020.

Although these findings may seem optimistic and imply that creative workers trust the resilience of the creative industries, it is important to be careful with these conclusions. Education is not equally accessible to all. Increased enrollment in education might exacerbate inequalities in the creative occupations. Concerns about a “lost generation”, of younger early career cultural workers leaving the sector, are crucial too, if 2020’s decline in art-related undergraduate degrees heralds the start of a longer-term trend. This “lost generation” is a key issue for some of our other work throughout the project.

This research is part of a larger-scale programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Image: Susan Q Yin, Unsplash

Published: 2021
Resource type: Research