Entrepreneurship and Employability #1

Clark, J. O., and Jackson, L. 2017. Ideology in the Academy: The Entrepreneur and Neoliberal Higher Education. Paper presented at PESGB London, Institute of Education, 15 February.

In his 2008 book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes about the decline of craft in the age of capitalism. The imperative for the young creative to find a niche leaves no time for the slow learning and habit required for craft acquisition, and the pursuit of profit erodes the desire to do a job well for its own sake.

Clark and Jackson’s view appears to correspond with Sennett, who writes that ‘good craftmanship implies socialism’ (2008, p288). Their critique of neoliberalism is founded on its status as a political ideology (with assumptions, beliefs and displacements that oppress the ‘other’). As socialism is also an ideology, I decided to ask them about that. I was surprised to receive a very short answer – that some ideologies are clearly better than others, and socialism is, of course, a better ideology than neoliberalism. Maybe I’m not as confident as I thought I was at arguing at these things. I just said, ‘okaaay…’ and left someone else (Richard, as it happens, who thankfully saw what I was getting at) to pick up the baton. What I wanted – and expected – was for them to explain what they mean by one ideology being ‘better’ than another, and to acknowledge that such a response might undermine their critique (e.g. ideology as oppression). I imagine all those present at the seminar were in favour of a more equitable society, but I think many of us would have been keen to chew over a philosophical rationale for that. If socialism really is a ‘better’ ideology than neoliberalism, how come neoliberalism is so clearly winning? It’s a bit like someone maintaining that Manchester United is a ‘better’ team than Accrington Stanley when they’ve never won a single game against them (which happens to be true – they’ve drawn every time – but possibly a bad example).

Sennett (in Gielen & De Bruyne’s excellent 2012 book Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm) distinguishes between art as individual self-expression and craft as a collective endeavour, and says that in recent decades art schools have privileged the former at the expense of the latter. Presumably this is related to the academicisation of art schools and subsequent changes to assessment practices, which have become more granular, criterion-based and individualised.

Collective endeavour cannot be neglected in the performing arts; music, theatre and dance are intrinsically collective and collaborative. Even solo performances generally rely on collaboration and interpretation between performer and composer, author or choreographer. This characteristic lead us to question how entrepreneurship is appropriate or even relevant to performing arts education.

I think we need to leave aside the question of whether entrepreneurship should be taught until we’ve agreed on what entrepreneurial skills are, and whether they can be taught. I’m not an expert on entrepreneurship, but to me it seems more like a set of attitudes – to seek profit, to enjoy responding and adapting to a market environment, and to find satisfaction in a volatile and uncertain life.

I think there is a widely-held preconception that those who study art at university don’t tend to do so well in the world of work, but that of course depends on your measure. The OECD lifetime earnings stats indicate that art & design subjects don’t lead to high salaries, but UAL doesn’t do badly with regard to post-study employment; we have positive flags in the TEF metrics for the percentage of our graduates in employment generally, and in highly-skilled employment. Of course, that just means we do better than expected (I’m imagining that creative subjects would have lower benchmarks)… so, who knows. At the end of the day, in spite of fees and underfunding (and low NSS scores), arts-specialist institutions are surviving, and (more importantly?) our graduates are surviving too.

So, my question is, what is the problem that entrepreneurship and employability education is trying to solve? Are we, as a society, lacking suitable skilled individuals in the creative and performance arts? Or is it a matter of creating a more level playing field; ensuring that tacit knowledge and skills are made explicit to everyone (not just the rich, white males who make up the vast majority of those self-identifying as ‘entrepreneurs’).

And – wouldn’t it be more useful (and more exciting), to look at this issue as art presenting a challenge to educational bureaucracy, rather than the other way around? The language used in measures like the NSS certainly exerts pressure on arts courses to become less like arts courses; steering course organisation, management, curriculum and assessment practices in directions that may not be appropriate to the discipline. So, perhaps we need to ease off on the slavish chasing of metrics and redirect our energies into creating a strong narrative around what arts education is and why it is good. But maybe that’s exactly what the metric-plus-narrative approach to the TEF has enabled us to do? I guess we wait and see…

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