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What do creative arts graduates do?

December 2020

Graduates from creative subjects were more likely than their peers to be self-employed and freelance - meaning they have been hard hit by the economic impact of COVID-19. But the latest edition of What do graduates do? indicates that their enterprising nature could put them in a strong position when it comes to developing new opportunities


  • Cinematics and photography
  • Design
  • Fine arts
  • Media studies
  • Performing arts

There were 21,420 survey respondents from the creative arts subject area, of whom 37.2% were male and 63.7% female. Overall, 16.6% of respondents had studied subjects in creative arts (out of a total survey response of 193,155).

One third of creative arts graduates were working in arts, design and media professions - all areas directly related to their degree. Overall, 50.2% of respondents were in full-time employment, with 20.6% stating that they were in part-time employment. This compares to 59.8% of respondents from all subjects stating that they were in full-time employment, and 10% working part time.

Among these subjects, performing arts saw the lowest rate of unemployment. The unemployment rate for the creative arts was 5.4%, comparable with an unemployment figure of 5.1% across all subjects in the Graduate Outcomes survey.

Meanwhile 3.9% of creative arts respondents reported that they were undertaking further study (compared with 8.4% of respondents from all subjects), with 7.4% engaged in work and study (compared with 9.5% from all subject areas).

Employment by subject

Across the creative arts, the top occupation was clearly related to subject of study.

Two-and-a-half times the number of creative arts graduates were working part time compared with graduates from other disciplines, with fine arts having the highest percentage of graduates working part time at 29.7%.

Fine arts had the lowest number in full-time employment (36.5%) and design the highest at 60.6%. Some 55.9% of media studies graduates were in full-time employment, with performing arts at 46.9%. These figures are comparable to graduates from other subjects across social sciences and humanities, although fine arts and performing arts were significantly lower than the overall average for graduates employed full time.

In terms of professional-level employment, design had the highest figure at 68.3% and fine arts the lowest with 48.1%. However, this may have been influenced by how the graduate answered the survey. Due to their portfolio- style working life, creative graduates may report their 'steady' employment (for example retail, catering, waiting and bar staff occupations) as opposed to championing their creative work.

Of all the subjects, design graduates were most likely to stay in the sector, with 41.1% finding employment in arts, design, and media professions. Media studies was the only subject that saw a significant number move into another professional-level sector, with 17.6% in marketing, PR, and sales professions.

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Self-employment and contract-based work

Self-employment, enterprise and freelance activities were common outcomes for creative arts graduates. The number of graduates working for themselves was high across all subjects, with 9.7% of respondents from performing arts classing themselves as self-employed or freelance. Even the lowest figure (design studies at 3.5%) is higher than the general graduate population, where the figure was 1.1% in self-employment.

These figures reinforce the message that creative graduates are expected to be enterprising and ready to create their own opportunities in industry, while being less likely to have a permanent contract of employment than the average (70.3%). Creative arts graduates were more likely to be on a fixed-term employment contract of less than 12-months (7.4%) than the average (4.5%) and the number of creative graduates on a zero hours contract was twice the average. This pattern is likely to continue, as creative professionals face the high level of precarity characterising creative work.1

Self-employment/freelancing top occupations include:

  • photographers, audio-visual and broadcasting equipment operators
  • actors, entertainers and presenters
  • arts officers, producers and directors.

Developing a creative, artistic or professional portfolio top occupations include:

  • artists
  • photographers, audio-visual and broadcasting  equipment operators
  • actors, entertainers and presenters.

For all subject areas, retail and sales occupations were highly reported areas of employment and sales and retail assistants was the top paid occupation. Again, this could be due to graduates completing the survey with permanent contract employment in mind as opposed to championing the creative work they may be involved in.

As the Graduate Outcomes survey is conducted 15 months after graduation, many creative graduates may still be developing ideas, working on projects and building industry connections in order to develop their creative practice.


Creative arts graduates without further study reported a salary range of £18,061 to £20,447, compared with £24,217 across all subjects. For those who had undertaken further study their salary increased slightly (£19,029 to £22,628). This correlates with PEC's findings 'that when controlling for demographic, attainment and work-related characteristics, the negative effect of taking a creative degree, as opposed to a non-creative degree is approximately £3,000 a year'.2

For some subjects, undertaking further study since graduation created a significant salary uplift, for example fine arts and performing arts. However, in cinematics and photography, further study created a downward pressure on average salary. On average, performing arts graduates reported the highest salaries from the creative arts, although the differential between the highest and lowest figures was less than 10%.

There has also been historic evidence that creative arts graduates working in the creative industries report higher salaries than those working in other sectors3, and some correlation between salary and self-employment; graduates in employment often tend to report higher salary figures than those working for themselves.

Value to the labour market

Prior to COVID-19, the UK's creative sector was growing at five times the rate of the wider economy, employing over two million people (an increase of 34.5% since 2011), and contributing £111.7billion to the economy - more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.4

The Projected Economic Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Creative Industries report, suggests that the creative sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy in 2020, with a projected GVA shortfall of £29billion. The report projects that 122,000 permanent creative workers will be made redundant by the end of the year.

This impact is set to be felt twice as hard by creative freelancers with 287,000 freelance roles expected to be terminated by the end of 2020.5

This will present significant challenges for creative arts graduates entering the industry. However, many have demonstrated their versatility by finding employment in a range of key economic sectors. This trend is likely to continue, demonstrating that working in alternative sectors should not represent a failure of artistic talent, lack of commitment to artistic principles or career guilt. On the contrary, transferable skills developed in creative higher education are valued and can be meaningfully applied to other sectors.6

Creative graduates are arguably well placed to deal with labour market uncertainty - they may even be in a position of strength in developing new opportunities due to their creative talents, enterprising nature and ability to continually self-promote, creating their own unique career cartographies. Current labour market contraction in this sector cannot be dismissed, but creative graduates' wide range of transferable skills, technological acumen and ability to network effectively may prove to be key attributes for navigating the future world of work.

Creative graduates may also take solace from the WEF Future of Jobs report 2016 that identified that 'creativity' will become one of the top three skills workers will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.7 The report highlighted that due to disruptive new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.

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Also in this series


  1. Who is working second jobs in the creative economy?, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, October 2020.
  2. For Love or Money? Graduate Motivations and the Economic Returns of Creative Higher Education Inside and Outside the Creative Industries, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, August 2020.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Projected Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Creative Industries, Oxford Economics, June 2020.
  5. Ibid.
  6. For Love or Money? Graduate Motivations and the Economic Returns of Creative Higher Education Inside and Outside the Creative Industries, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, August 2020.
  7. The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, January 2016.

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