Are universities and colleges giving students the skills they need to enter the creative industries? Ann-Marie Corvin speaks to those involved in training the next generation

“I know at least one lecturer at Salford Uni who wants a fight with me now,” says Mediasmiths managing director Steve Sharman following a recent Broadcast roundtable at MediaCityUK, where he argued that academia was “only really good for telling people how to make telly in the 1970s”.

Sharman wasn’t the only one in the room who expressed concern about graduates leaving university without the right skills. “The general feeling was that education is an important aspect of getting MediaCityUK to work, but the one issue we all have is in getting the right people with the right skills and backgrounds,” he explains.

Sharman argues that not only is there no real recognition from universities of how fast the industry is changing, but that many of the graduates he interviews are missing “soft skills”.

“Effective team-working, how to brainstorm, how to do really good pieces of structured analysis – some real basics are lacking,” he says.

Unless more commercial organisations start taking a hands-on approach to shaping the curriculum, however, nothing is going to change, argues Stephen Partridge, head of department at The School of Applied Production, part of Buckinghamshire New University.

“While ultimately it’s the university’s responsibility to provide the right skills, it’s also about companies taking a proactive interest in how the curriculum is shaped,” he says. Partridge says his main role is to listen to the industry and make sure this is reflected in the curriculum – something that happens far more in the US.

“The relationships between industry and universities are different there,” he says. “Broadcasters work closely with universities to ensure they get back what they put in.”

Changing attitudes

According to Partridge, the attitude in the UK is starting to change, especially in areas where there are skills shortages, such as outside broadcast. The college formed its relationship with OB firm Visions, for example, when Partridge attended one of the many industry seminars at which employers bemoan the lack of appropriately skilled graduates.

“Afterwards, we went down to Visions’ HQ in Staines with the technicians, who then helped us with the content and design of our courses. We now have similar relationships with SIS and EVS.” The university has also forged links with Sky and Watford FC, and second-year students are regularly sent out to make highlights packages.

“The student has to build up a professional working relationship quickly and deliver results to a deadline,” Partridge says. “These elements of the curriculum are high risk, often difficult to manage and volatile in many ways, but the rewards are significant.”

There are serious business reasons why industry should be engaging more with educational establishments and training bodies, says Andrew Smith, director of strategy and communications at Pinewood Shepperton: “The creative industries in the UK are worth £36bn a year. If we are going to maintain that level of success, we need to invest in skills and training.”

Smith predicts that demand for training will be boosted by the tax reliefs due to kick in this April, which will apply to all high-end drama productions shot in the UK. The government has acknowledged that investment in infrastructure and skills to cope with this increased productivity is crucial, and has allocated £6m for skills investment to boost growth in the creative industries, to be spent over two years and matched by industry.

Against this backdrop, Pinewood is exploring the creation of a centre of excellence on its lot, together with its long-time academic partner, Amersham & Wycombe College. It is envisaged that most of the students will be apprentices, and the aim is to develop and deliver qualifications for all parts of the screen-based industries, particularly in shortage areas such as VFX, 2D and 3D animation, rigging, compositing and games development.

While Pinewood won’t be directly involved in the design of the courses, Smith says it will offer practical training by linking them up with its tenant network of more than 200 media related businesses. Pinewood’s scheme is aimed at 16-24 year-olds, but a new initiative over at Elstree is set to take an even more grass-roots approach, giving students as young as 14 the opportunity to try their hand at prosthetics, sound design and animation.

The new breed

Backed by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust and sponsored by educational philanthropist David Meller, Elstree University Technical College is one of the new breed of schools that aim to give pupils fulltime technical courses of study, supported by employers. The UTC, which opens for business in September, has support from nearby Elstree Studios and is also in talks with BBC Elstree. According to Elstree Studios’ managing director Roger Morris, the biggest challenge so far has been persuading parents to put their sons and daughters on the (sound) stage.

“Parents take some convincing that this is a vocational training college and not a media arts school,” he says. Morris adds that for skills in digital media, students would ideally study a mix of design and art, combined with maths and physics.

UTC principal Moira Green says this union of technology, creativity and academic rigour is central to the curriculum. “The industry is telling us that students with technical skills must be able to draw with a pencil – these are skills that have got left behind. And for sound engineers, it’s important that they understand the physics of sound and have the technical knowledge to underpin their creativity.”

Project and work-based learning is also viewed as an important part of the curriculum and Green says the first week of the course will involve working on a big project alongside industry professionals. While 14 may seem a young age at which to commit to a future career, however broad the curriculum, Green insists that students know the kind of things they are interested in and need an outlet.

With a plethora of media courses on offer, many driven more by student demand than employer requirements, Creative Skillset feels a benchmark of quality is needed. In a pilot last year, the training body assessed 156 courses from 27 institutions in subjects from broadcast technology to media production. Courses were invited to apply for approval and had to meet a range of criteria, from tutor experience to student- to-staff ratio. Industry people were also sent on site to examine the courses, speak to the students and look at the institution’s track record of getting students to work. Around 60% (96) of courses passed this benchmark and were awarded a ‘Creative Skillset Tick’ as a mark of quality.

From spring onwards, all media related courses will be invited to apply. According to Skillset executive director and deputy chief executive Kate O’Connor, when the training body carried out a micro version of this scheme three years ago in animation and fi lm, students on an accredited course were three times more likely to get work in their industry.

O’Connor says the message from industry is that it would like courses to address the same cross-fertilisation of skills that UTC hopes to nurture – “that mix of creativity, technology and entrepreneurship – a sense of polymath rather than specialist.”

Over at the BBC Academy, this is something director Anne Morrison is exploring. “For technology roles on our formal training schemes, we want graduates from a science background,” she says. “But what we are really looking for is a fusion between creative, editorial, engineering and coding skills.”

Morrison is currently working with Sussex University and Wired Sussex to examine why Brighton has taken off as a digital media cluster – could it be that its graduates have that much sought-after fusion of skills? She also refers to the Council for Industry and Higher Education Fuse report, authored by Digital TV Group chair David Docherty, which calls for “an industry oriented approach to the university training ethic, encompassing creative and technical skills required for the digital market”.

Or, as Sharman puts it: “Both sides need to talk more.”