Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour

Sharing research on craft higher education and professional development at the Crafts Council UK Roundtable

Dr Lauren England

On 9th March 2022, I shared key findings from my PhD research on craft higher education and professional development at a Crafts Council UK Higher Education Roundtable.

The Roundtable event was attended by members of the Crafts Council’s Education, Policy and Research and Professional Development teams, representatives UK craft higher education and other supporting agency stakeholders. The group came together to discuss the strengths and challenges in higher education, with a focus on preparing our learners for careers in the craft sector. Discussions highlighted both examples of good practice and where support was needed. Key discussion topics included funding cuts in HE (especially creative HE and foundation programmes), organisational challenges for the HE sector, opportunities and challenges of blended learning and delivering craft courses post-pandemic, widening participation and developing anti-racist approaches in craft education.

I was invited by the Crafts Council to present key findings on higher education and early careers from my PhD research. My PhD (2016-2020) “Crafting professionals in UK higher education: Craft work logics and skills for professional practice” was a collaborative doctorate with Crafts Council UK, supervised by Dr Roberta Comunian and Dr Anna Woodham in the CMCI department. Bringing together perspectives from crafts educators, current students and graduates, the research explored three key questions:

  • How is professional development approached in Craft HE?
  • Does craft HE prepare makers for early-career practice?
  • How do early-career crafts graduates sustain and develop their independent creative practice?

Connecting with key roundtable discussion areas, my research presentation first highlighted how, in connection with wider employability and “value for money” debates in HE, professional development education had become a much more prominent feature of craft HE curricula. This is also considered in a forthcoming book chapter on employability agendas in craft HE. Following this, I discussed the ways in which professional development education is approached in craft HE, including core teaching (i.e. professional development modules) and extracurricular practices (i.e. careers and employability events) but also how it is embedded in creative practices such as live briefs and exhibition experience.

I then addressed students’ motivations/rationales for choosing to study a craft subject and their expectations of craft HE. Here I highlighted opportunities for material engagement (including facilities) and geographical location as key factors in students’ university choice, and that students’ main expectations were for practical skills development and material knowledge combined with business skills and knowledge, and also preparation for employment and/or professional practice. These findings are presented in more detail in my policy report for Crafts Council UK.

I also discussed final year student and graduate experiences of professional development education. Here I highlighted the influence of educators on students’ creative direction and professional pathways, issues of a “one size fits all” approach and a perceived lack of business skills in the curriculum, and how the timing of professional development education could lead to a lack of perceived relevance among students. However, I also identified how students tended to prioritise making and time in the studio over attending their professional development sessions and that HE was acknowledged as a foundation for ongoing development. These are topics I address in more detail in a recent chapter in the Modern Guide to the Creative Economy.

Finally, I presented key findings on the entrepreneurial strategies of early-career crafts graduates, highlighting how different creative products and income streams were generated. This was the subject of my recently published article in the journal Innovation: Organization & Management. You can read my blog about the article here and it is also available open access.

Based on my research, I made the following recommendations for higher education:

  • Challenge the focus on professional development and conceptual development at the expense of technical skill and material knowledge
  • Advocate for retaining and investing in making facilities and for maintaining regional provision of craft education at HE level
  • Advocate for a better understanding of graduate ‘success’ that takes incubation periods into account
  • Raise awareness of the need to consider the influence of tutors, location, infrastructure (cultural and craft specific), networks and partnerships (tutors and HE) and markets (local, national, discipline/practice) in relation to graduate pathways and outcomes
  • Work with HE providers to develop optional modules in more vocationally-orientated training, facilitate authentic live briefs
  • Encourage greater collaborative practice and the development of collectives
  • Support the development of alternative education models (and qualifications)

I also made the following recommendations for supporting early career development:

  • Raise awareness of different models and strategies of craft micro enterprise
  • Avoid promoting the ‘support’ model
  • Encourage the development of collectives and move away from individualised creativity
  • Encourage and facilitate opportunities to engage with business advisors and mentors and access to seed-funding, low-cost space, equipment and storage
  • Raise awareness of the diverse skills and resources required
  • Establish and grow professional networks for graduates

Further details on my research with Crafts Council UK can be found in my policy report. I will continue to work with Crafts Council UK to disseminate my research findings and support policy advocacy for craft higher education and professional development. I also look forward to sharing further journal publications from my PhD on employability agendas in craft HE and the skills and resource needs of crafts graduates in the near future.