Reading through the timely Animation UK report “We need to talk about skills: A skills analysis of the UK Animation industry” (November 2018) I did a double-take- it’s as if skills issues have been frozen in time since I got involved in the early noughties. With recent new weaponry in the skills armoury like apprenticeships, funded traineeships, the Animation Levy and a resurgent TV sector I had imagined many skills issues were being solved, but this report contains many disappointing flashbacks.
In the foreword Executive Chair Kate O’Connor (disclosure: my old boss at Creative Skillset when I was, amongst other roles, Animation Manager 2009-2014) declares “Animation UK will now focus its efforts on creating a positive dialogue and partnership between the industry and education”. This is welcome news. However, for this to work, I think it means a whole-brain approach- using both hemispheres of skills- supply and demand. The educators need to be heard too.
This positive dialogue is essential more than ever with the spectre of Brexit and possible difficulties in gaining access to EU and international talent. Our own UK-based supply side of talent needs to be examined and assessed afresh. I’d even say there are some simple mechanisms that could be put in place speedily to create a more efficient indigenous Animation talent pipeline. You can even call it the Animation Skills Backstop (groan) if you want.
In many industry reports dissatisfaction with UK Higher Education is now an unspoken baseline- in the Animation UK report there’s mention of a “talent pipeline from schools through college and university into jobs and apprenticeships” implying apprenticeships are the peak of the pyramid in terms of skills. Unconscious maybe, but a bias that has grown even though graduates far outnumber apprentices as new entrants in the workplace many times over. Also placements are now part of the offer of most University courses, and can often be far more flexible than apprenticeships too- useful for much shorter periods if you don’t want to take someone on for 12 months.
Whilst industry eyes have all been trained on apprenticeships, our universities’ creative courses are being chipped away. Natural demographics and perverse incentives mean numbers studying animation could dwindle without industry support. The HE sector often seems sidelined- the UK Screen Alliance website mentions “Animation UK will continue to work with the sector, the skills partners including ScreenSkills, the BFI and the NextGen Skills Academy to tackle these issues” but there’s seemingly no central conversation with Animation degree courses.
To be fair the report does imply that there is some healthy exchange at scale between Universities/Colleges and industry. “44% of respondents support Colleges or Universities” but it’s not clear how, nor whether this is CSR or part of a solid recruitment pipeline. (P.32)
It’s also notable the report states 31% of industry participants “support outreach/ work with schools and access programmes”. Whilst laudable as a bulwark against the retrogressive forces of the EBacc and the lack of careers information for young people, it’s impact on any recruitment pipeline will be quite a few years down the line, and one wonders why partnership work with Universities with its conveyor belt immediacy isn’t therefore more prioritised, especially when there’s corrective work to do – “Universities in the UK generally (but not always) do not teach or produce students with relevant animation skills or techniques to enter at an industry standard. More focus on animation principles and less on a full movie solely produced by an individual student means they could concentrate on better learning.” (P.33) I find this claim a flashback to the 90s and if it’s still prevalent, then it’s not in the courses I know. There are, according to UCAS 104 (self-defined) Animation degree providers. There’s more than enough quality providers to go round so I’d suggest just ignore the lone auteurs.
However all this does confirm the fact that Higher Education does a really bad job of selling itself as a flexible solution provider, and fails to market the kind of new skills solutions that could alleviate the Animation industry’s pain. There’s no dedicated spokesperson or advocate on the side of the courses, so no easily digestible soundbites drift towards industry’s earlobes.
Reports such as Animation UK are naturally incomplete as they focus on what I call the hemisphere of demand. Quite rightly that is UK Animation’s brief, it represents industry, but without including the hemisphere of supply the issues can’t be fully understood nor outlined. I think Animation UK understands this and thats why it suggests the next stage is positive dialogue, but all too often this seems only with Apprenticeship providers. In these reports Universities and degree courses are seen as inert matter that needs to be prodded into action, (maybe electroshock therapy to keep the analogy going?) when so many of them could, with a few deft strokes of incentive, become (if they are not already) dependable purveyors of contemporary skills solutions. A lot of Universities are really, really expert at designing great teaching. Just tell them what to teach!
The report rightly calls for a dialogue between industry and Universities, but there seems to be no forum for HE to answer this call; there is no centripetal force, no HE advisory panel or University Animation grouping within Animation UK, UK Screen Alliance, ScreenSkills, or any industry group to bring these interests together, to meet and work collectively.
This issue rests mainly with the Universities though, who are usually coy, disconnected and non-communicative regarding gaps in what they teach. Admitting things could be changed in the curriculum could mean scaring away potential students. However, when they do things right, the individual courses within the Universities often have little agency given to them by management to proclaim their good practice, and are too busy teaching to speak out about the good things they do. HE management can often take a dim view of dynamic staff taking a few days off the teaching rota to consult with industry, or sell their graduates talents. Industry groups like Animation UK could supply that forum or neutral ground for collective best practice to be identified and nurtured, to activate and energise that other hemisphere needed for lasting skills solutions.
Individual tutors and heads of courses are naturally collegiate – and would be more than willing to engage and share, but it needs outside agencies like UK Animation, UK Screen Alliance, or ScreenSkills to provide the site that attracts Universities into a community of practice to solve some of those skills issues that thus far, are still in suspended animation.