Professor Christopher Frayling, the rector of the Royal College of Arts, said graduates were being forced to find work in business, the civil service and other sectors.
"There are a hell of a lot of young artists being produced," he said. "All those people can't get work. It is wrong for them to have the carrot of a professional career as an artist or designer dangled in front of them. That was all right in the 1950s when the world was different, but it [a guaranteed job] is no longer true today."
As many as 72,000 people are studying courses in art and design at degree level and below, at British colleges and universities for at least three years. That is more than the population of Florence in the Renaissance, said Professor Frayling. It should be made clear to these students that they probably will not get work as professional artists, he said.
But art and design provided a very good education in life skills, insisted the head of the college that educated the artists David Hockney and Tracey Emin. It encouraged an individual approach to problem solving and gave students self- confidence. Art and design degrees, he added, were like history degrees a generation ago, but they prepared students for the new creative economy rather than the industry- led Britain of the past.
Although art and design courses teach different skills from the old arts and humanities degrees - a creative approach to decision-making rather than the rational and logical skills of essay-writing - they are replacing those traditional degrees in the eyes of young people, Professor Frayling argued. Many more students study art and design now than history, and parents are positively encouraging their offspring to do these subjects because they make sense in a world consumed with spin, style, glamour and the Internet.
Professor Vaughan Grylls, director of the Kent Institute for Art and Design, agreed that the subject was well-suited to training young people for the new economy, but said that a lot of his graduates found work in the exploding media and communications industries. They don't always land the most creative work, he said: "They won't necessarily be the next John Galliano, but they might be working in fashion behind the scenes, reconfiguring designs for the mass market."
But Professor Alan Smithers of the education department at Liverpool University poured scorn on the notion that art and design degrees could replace history in their usefulness. "There isn't much skill to these subjects," he said. "You just need to come up with an extraordinary idea that captures people's attention, like an unmade bed or running a Buster Keaton movie, again and again.
"With an academic subject you are developing logical, systematic thinking. You are creating pictures of the world which you are checking against evidence. With design studies, you are operating in terms of images which may illuminate life for some people and be a lot of fun at that stage in your life."