Professor John Last, Principal, Norwich University College of the Arts (NUCA) questions what art and design education could look like by 2020 and what impact it could have on us all.

David Cameron, speaking personally, has praised the value of a creative education.  When responding to a Guardian Q&A last November he commented “I am a big fan of art education. My wife went to art school and read fine art at Bristol Poly, and I think still reaps enormous benefit from having such a great education, so I’m all in favor of us having well-funded art colleges”.

As Principal of Norwich University College of the Arts (NUCA), I can only hope this translates into policy.  The consequences of hoping creativity will continue to flourish with declining investment in our art and design education in schools, colleges and universities is a risk this country literally cannot afford to take.

Government has signalled its commitment to the creative industries sector, which is emerging from recession faster than almost all other areas of the economy.   As the DCMS website notes: “Employment in the sector has grown at double the rate of the economy as a whole.” Yet the support for art and design education, the vital supply chain of creative entrepreneurs and employees needs restating.

Perhaps it is hoped that the UK is somehow ‘innately creative’. If so, this assumption must be challenged.  It is art and design education – in schools, colleges and universities – that nurture and support this creativity and provide the supply chain to the creative industries which continue to generate the wider economic, as well as the social and cultural, benefits that we all enjoy.

NUCA’s application figures remain buoyant and this year we saw our second highest number of applicants in our 165 year history. Against competitor trends and the UCAS average we have reason for confidence.

Whether we will feel the same in 2020 depends to a large extent on the government commitment to the UK creative education system from secondary school upwards. Between 1999 and 2008 there was a 57% increase in art and design study at Higher Education (HE).  Now three years later, in 2012, there is a 16% decline in applications to these subjects (against a 7% decline across all subjects).

According to the National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD), pupil numbers in art and design have already declined by 50% in the wake of the E-Bacc. Current proposals for the introduction of Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs), when adopted in schools, will see a significant reduction in art and design opportunities and curriculum time.

The Henley Review of Cultural Education in England was sufficiently concerned to suggest that the EBacc should be extended to include at least one ‘cultural’ subject (alongside English Literature and History) as a mandatory component at least to GCSE level.

We should all be concerned by this threatened reduction in the subject offer and time available to teach art and design subjects.  Equally concerning is the sharp reduction in teacher training places for art and design subjects, which have dropped from 600 in 2009 to 275 in 2012.

The wider social impact of this squeeze on our creative education system and cultural heritage could take years to unfold.

My primary concern is that applications for art and design subjects across the HE sector will decline with fewer qualified teachers in our schools and less time allocated to these subjects.

Parents and pupils may well not have access to information on the value of a creative degree and may lack an awareness of the many booming industries within the creative economy.  For example recent figures showed the UK games industry is the fourth largest in the world with over a third of the population accessing video games, yet our BA Games Art and Design course, which last week saw our students win a BAFTA at the British Academy Games Awards, is one of just 13 in the country. This is a time for investing in creativity and exploiting new markets.

The government clearly recognises the economic value of the creative industries yet seems uncomfortable in making the connection between the (current) outstanding provision in schools, FE colleges and universities and our global reputation in the sector.

Art and design in universities is the breeding ground for this success. There are numerous examples of this. Let me draw on some known personally to me from NUCA. Ben Farrin, MD of ‘The Student Pocket Guide’ and a recent recipient of a £50,000 Barclays Enterprise competition said “At NUCA I was part of a community of designers, illustrators and photographers and was able to discuss starting my own business with people with different skills”. Graduate Helen Schroeder, now an animator at Aardman (who make Wallace and Gromit among other things), said “I would not have had the credentials or confidence to do what I’m doing without the experience I gained at NUCA.”  Sally Wood, now a print designer at Cath Kidston, said “The most valuable thing about NUCA was the talks and tutorials from working artists and designers and the placement I undertook whilst at NUCA with Liberty”.

As Principal of NUCA, it is obvious why I should be concerned about the future of UK art and design education, but perhaps it is less obvious why anyone else should be. As former US President Bill Clinton said “it’s the economy stupid!”

The creative industries constitute 7% of UK GDP – the highest proportion in the world and there is a fundamental link between art and design education and our status as a world leader in this field.