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Creative Qualifications – Engaging the Creative Brain
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This blog features content from UAL Awarding Body.

Written by Miriam Venner, Associate Dean for Academic Standards at UAL Awarding Body.

In this first of a series of blogs from University of the Arts (UAL) Awarding Body, I will start to explore the approach to qualification design that we exemplify and relate this to my own experience as an educator within the creative sector over many decades.

I began my teaching career in a Further Education College in Cornwall, UK. Over the years I progressed up through the College and took on many aspects of curriculum design and management within the creative suite. I found that we were often trying to fit square pegs into round holes when trying to corral both creative teachers and students into the strict parameters set by qualification specifications as devised by traditional Awarding Bodies. The need for standardisation, necessitates a carefully established structure, that can produce outputs that can be measured and compared against others in order to assure consistency. The problem I found was that all too often these structures were too regimented and restrictive for creative minds to thrive within as they weren’t able to fit neatly into boxes.

In order to alleviate the stresses this dissonance created; my curriculum team set about a new approach to making sure we could meet the requirements of the qualification specifications. We took a leaf out of the writer William Burroughs’[1] approach to ‘cut up’ creation of new work. Burroughs took existing newsprint articles, poems and prose and literally cut them up and chucked them on the floor to re-combine and in doing so produce new and exciting combinations or words. This approach was then discovered and employed by the master of creativity, David Bowie, in his lyric writing. Bowie produced some of his best songs through this method.

Inspired, I determined that if it worked for them, it could work for us. So we undertook the same approach with awarding body specifications. We literally cut up the assessment criteria and mapped them to real projects, things that the students could actually work on in a way that emulated, not simulated the processes of the creative practitioners they were aiming to be. We made the qualifications fit our curriculum needs.

Whilst serving the purpose of establishing creative curriculum design, the process was very time consuming and a bit nerve racking for teachers as there was always a residual fear that something will be missed. Will the students miss a criterion and thus be failed by the awarding body? Every year we had to convince our own Quality Department and new External Moderators and Verifiers of our approach and although the outcome was great, the process was exhausting.

Then I discovered UAL Awarding Body and the approach to qualification design and structure it offers. Discovering the project-based approach to delivery and assessment that UAL enables was a light bulb moment for me. UAL had done the mapping of assessment criteria to projects process for us and we could lift their qualifications off the shelf and avoid all of that hard work and would no longer have to keep justifying our approach.

Our students on UAL qualifications were then able to work to real project briefs that were often commissioned by real customers and audiences. We were able to use the qualification structures to assess this work holistically and in a real world of work context, thereby enshrining employability skills at the core.

The values of creative problem-solving manifest in UAL creative qualifications encourage students to be reflective and champion experiential learning​, they enable students to take risks and be innovative. Learners are able to channel their creativity and explore their own talent within a secure environment that builds confidence. UAL qualifications nurture and facilitate individual growth and enable students to feel that it is ok to fail. The best ideas can come through experimentation and taking a leap of faith.

We have found that our approach to qualification design and the pervasive flexibility has enabled an adaptability for teachers and centres during the pandemic that they have relished. By not being prescriptive on content but on expected creative outcomes, students and teachers are able to succeed in these challenging times.

This approach is also captured well by the late creative education guru, Ken Robinson who produced the excellent analogy of the difference between types of qualification design through reference to fast food and Michelin starred restaurants. He stated that great creative education enables a Michelin Star approach with the inclusion of ‘specific criteria for excellence, but they do not say how the particular restaurants should meet these criteria. They don’t say what should be on the menu, how the food should be prepared, what the staff should wear, how the room should be decorated. All of that is at the discretion of the individual restaurant. The Guides simply establish criteria and it is up to every restaurant to meet them in whatever way they see best. They are not judged on some impersonal standard (like the fast food chains) but by assessments of experts who know what they are looking for and what a great restaurant is actually like. The result is every Michelin restaurant is terrific. And they are all unique and different from each other.’ [2]

This is what great creative education is about and should enable, and our qualifications do just that.

Author details:

Miriam Venner is the Associate Dean for Academic Standards at UAL Awarding Body. She is an experienced educator and further and higher education senior leader with a particular focus on the creative arts. Her role involves working to secure the national academic standards for the University of the Arts London Awarding Body suite of regulated qualifications.


[1] https://www.openculture.com/2016/07/how-to-jumpstart-your-creative-process-with-william-s-burroughs-cut-up-technique.html

[2] Ken Robinson, The Element, How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything,  Penguin 2009, p250