Claire Robinson: Creative arts add real economic value

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Creative arts graduates are on the team that design Apple products. Photo / AP
Creative arts graduates are on the team that design Apple products. Photo / AP

Recent media reports have exhibited an undercurrent of suspicion towards tertiary study in the creative arts.

Last weekend's Herald on Sunday, for example, cited Professor Jacqueline Rowarth of Waikato University's management school saying that New Zealanders weren't paid well for tertiary qualifications and thousands of students were enrolling in creative arts courses that won't help them get jobs. Rowarth argues that students take creative arts courses at the expense of science, and that scientific research is needed to keep the economy growing.

The implication is that by including creative arts in their tertiary studies, students are using valuable government resources to pursue "hobby" subjects instead of opting for more "serious" economically-worthwhile subjects like agriculture, science, engineering and maths.

Let's look into this idea of value. Take the most successful company in the world at the moment, Apple.

One of the longest serving and critical members of the team that designed the iPhone and iPad is a creative arts graduate from New Zealand. Consider another global giant, Nike. Two creative arts graduates from New Zealand were on the team who helped design the Nike swoosh that appeared everywhere at the London Olympics.

Think about how many people own a Philips appliance. Who leads their design team? A New Zealand creative arts graduate. Who designed the transformational Fisher & Paykel dishdrawer? A home-grown creative arts graduate. How about those revolutionary seats on Air New Zealand long haul? Who designed those? Again, creative arts graduates from New Zealand.

These people are moulding global culture and businesses. They were lucky to be born with talent in a relatively free, creative little country. Here in New Zealand they have had the right opportunities to hone their natural abilities.

Now they are renowned and amply rewarded financially for their skills and creativity. Their careers clearly show that creative arts education can generate substantial economic benefit for individuals themselves, for business, and for the wider economy.

Yet at home, we still encounter embarrassingly parochial attitudes and cringe-making ignorance about the economic value of creative arts. Some among us look on every dollar spent on the arts as a dollar lost to science.

Then there is the important socio-cultural value that tertiary-trained artists, performers, writers, filmmakers bring to articulating and forming our national identity.

The creative arts are the primary way we as a nation express our character, our soul. They give us - in economic terms - our market differentiation. They provide reasons for people to visit us, to do business with us and to watch our movies.

The Government is currently grappling with the issue of how to improve its business infrastructure to help the economy become more innovative. In this we are not alone. The Europeans are well ahead of us, recognising that creativity and design is a critical part of the innovation infrastructure and investing resources to encourage greater creativity.

A recent evaluation of a UK Design Council programme aimed at increasing the use of design by primarily small and medium sized enterprises in manufacturing indicated strong economic returns for firms investing in design. Draft figures show that every £1 ($2) spent delivered £20+ in turnover, £3.90 operating profit and £4.71 exports directly attributable to the programme, and that every £1 invested by Government in design returned £34 to the economy. The evaluation also indicated that investment in design directly created and safeguarded jobs.

Prime Minister John Key frequently says that New Zealand's economic future depends on moving up the value curve - ensuring there are more competitive firms making and selling more higher-value products and services.

New Zealand needs students studying science, technology, engineering and maths to achieve this. But without question it also needs creative arts students and graduates.

Playing the science/art divide is a tired strategy that doesn't serve our country well. There are myriad instances of collaborations between science and the creative arts that have generated substantial added value.

In the UK, for instance, a programme pairing design associates with scientists and engineers at advanced R&D facilities led Oxford University to attract £4 million in investment to develop new electricity metering technology.

In New Zealand, leading agricultural companies like Gallaghers use industrial design expertise to give them the edge. It is time to embrace the 21st century, respect the skills and expertise of our highly trained graduates of every hue, and work together to get the best value out of every dollar for New Zealand.
Claire Robinson is an associate professor in creative arts at Massey University.

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