Evidence that subjects in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) arena are eroding young people’s interest in creativity has emerged from a 16 August article at The Guardian.
Headlined ‘Students don’t see the value: why A-level English is in decline’, the piece focuses on English teacher ‘Tim Edwards’ – not his real name – who lectures at a secondary school “in a relatively deprived part of east London”. 
According to the piece, Edwards is “watching his subject die in front of his eyes”. Saying that he's “worried for the future,” Edwards notes: “Recruiting for A-level this year, a lot of the trouble I ran into was that students don’t really see the value of studying English literature at A-level. We had an A-level open day where we did taster lessons. I ran the taster session for English and it was quite popular.
“However, a lot of the students in there were undecided about it. And the perception I get is that there’s a large push towards the STEM subjects because there’s a feeling these will guarantee students jobs in the future.”
South London-based deputy head Charlotte Robinson adds: “In these times of austerity, students are being constantly bombarded with the notion that if they are going to go to university and spend £9,000 annually on a degree, they need to study something which is going to make them money. The rhetoric is that English is indulgent and arty but not something that can support you financially, in comparison to a subject like maths or economics.”
Interestingly, the day before the article emerged, the Creative Industries Federation published a powerful open letter to new education secretary Gavin Williamson, saying: “We are deeply concerned by the falling numbers of young people studying creative subjects at school.” It points out: “Studying creative subjects positively impacts young people’s wellbeing, their development and future opportunities. Research from the Cultural Learning Alliance has shown that children who study art are more employable once they have finished studying, and more likely to keep a job once employed. Taking arts subjects can improve a young person’s cognitive abilities by up to 17%.” 
The letter cites NESTA research indicating that the UK could add 1 million new creative jobs by 2030 – but an education system “lacking creative subjects won’t equip young people to enter into self-employed careers (a third of the sector’s workforce).”
Is the UK’s focus on STEM costing the workforce valuable creativity?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The expansion of higher education in the UK and the proliferation of degree-level subjects has perhaps made us lose sight of what we may call ‘graduate-ness’. By which I mean the ability to think critically, undertake research, look for evidence and ask insightful questions about sources of knowledge, all with the aim of supporting a particular argument you’re advancing. Irrespective of the subject(s) that an individual has studied, those are the defining characteristics of the graduate outlook.
“We have a very homogenous education system in the UK, with such an intense focus on those three, full-time university years. Although we’ve seen a few recent changes – such as apprenticeship degrees and two-year, accelerated degrees – we still have an overwhelming sense that education is finished at the age of 21 or 22. Given the lengthening of working lives, that seems like an increasingly outdated perspective. Yet because of the student loans funding model, undergraduates are looking for a rapid return on investment, and are looking to achieve that return through their employment.”
Cooper notes: “All of these things have come together. The current conditions haven’t been created by STEM subjects per se. It’s more to do with a focus on vocational education, and how that has taken the spotlight away from graduate-ness. But in key professions such as accountancy and law, there is no requirement for a career entrant’s first degree to be in those specific subjects. It is still possible to obtain training contracts in those professions, because employers will take stock of the insights that the graduate is bringing from previous studies and experiences listed on their CV.”
She adds: “It does seem like a difficult tide to turn. But encouraging young people to study at university the subject that gives them the greatest pleasure, or provides a particularly enjoyable intellectual challenge – or even to combine a vocationally-focused major with a more personal minor – is something that we shouldn’t lose sight of.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on learning