On Friday morning, in search of an escape from another news screen full of bailouts and recapitalisations and market sentiments, I had a wander around London’s new University of the Arts building
, converted out of a vast former grain warehouse on the development land behind King’s Cross station. The university, which you still get to across a construction site, is now the home of, among other colleges, Central St Martins School of Art and Design
, which has relocated from its cramped and fabled buildings in and around Soho.
The new building opened just three weeks ago and students
and faculty are still exploring its possibilities. It is already, though, clearly an exciting space. Design and fashion students don’t need too many excuses to display some creative energy, but to sit in the cafe in the university’s main atrium, with its glass roof and three storeys of glass-fronted studios and workshops rising all around is to remind yourself briefly what it is like to be 19, full of the sudden, lucky freedom of student life and the unlikely sense that, despite all your anxieties to the contrary, the world might yet have an interest in what you can do.
The university building has been designed with cross-fertilisation in mind, so the formerly sequestered departments have been encouraged by its architecture to collaborate and compete for attention: the fashion studios with their rows of half-dressed mannequins look over at the rigour of graphic design; fine arts gazes loftily down on the weaving room of the textile department, in which banks of looms display the threads of intricate pattern-making.
The corridors are open to the central covered courtyard and are punctuated by communal work areas in which students and teachers, many wearing their own creations, share ideas. There is an air of craft and ambition about the place – people are trying stuff on and setting up photo-shoots and chatting while they stitch and paint. You have the feeling that you have wandered into some rarified and animated workshop, a 21st-century rebirth of medieval guilds. In this sense, the one thing that the building – a postindustrial version of courtyard and quadrangle – demands you pay attention to is the primacy of public space, of the habits and attractions of shared attention and knowledge. And it reminds you, too, how often these collective, defining attributes of university are neglected in the continuing debate about the funding and relevance of degree-level study.
Successive governments have encouraged us to think about university – along with everything else – in terms of singular cost benefits (“What will I get out of it?”) and as another facet of the inescapable narrative of bailout and debt. And it is in this context that it was revealed thatapplications to creative arts degrees were down by 27.1%
, year on year, a figure that was seized on as a predictable effect of the government slashing direct grants to universities and the consequent trebling of student fees.
There is no breakdown of that 27%, but it is hard to believe it does not disproportionately include those who can afford it least and may benefit from it most. Other “harder” subjects – business, accountancy, law – do not show that collapse in numbers, though across the board the figures are down something like 8% year on year.
In some quarters, perhaps governmental corridors, these numbers have been greeted with the kind of sigh of relief that exasperated parents might reserve for teenage kids bent on pursuing “worthless” enthusiasms. The overwhelming attitude of the blog posts, responding to this story, reflected on how the school leavers formerly attracted to the “soft” subjects offered by institutions such as Central St Martin’s (alumni include Lucian Freud, James Dyson and Terence Conran) are “getting real”, “doing the maths”. This is thought to be a good thing.
There is undoubtedly increasing number-crunching to prove that the maths, on its own, doesn’t add up. However, the picture is complicated, since on the plus side the “creative industries” employ nearly two million people in Britain – a figure that is growing at double the rate of the economy as a whole – and contribute nearly £20bn in exports. And though skeptics point out that a third of recent graduates from creative arts degrees are effectively unemployed, this figure needs to be placed alongside the fact that nearly the same holds true for last year’s economics and engineering graduates. A recent study at Lancaster University
suggested that over the course of a career student fees of anything more than £7,000 a year for a male arts graduate were, on average, unlikely to recoup the investment in terms of an uplift in salary (for women, who are still paid less, it just about made sense). American commentators have noted this “higher education
bubble”, the consequence of the equation that proves that study is increasingly not worth the outlay; bottom line – you will not make enough to cover your debt.
The government tacitly endorses such thinking; its white paper on higher education
, nonsensically titled “Students at the heart of the system”, was based on a report led by a former chief executive of BP, Lord Browne,whose committee
included a partner at McKinsey’s, a Treasury economist and a senior banker. The white paper was published after legislation on fees had been enacted and, not surprisingly, given the make-up of the advisory board, its tone took as read the prevailing wisdom that universities, if they had any value, were to be much more closely aligned with the needs of the economy, the desperate pursuit of growth. A degree, this wisdom suggests, should first and foremost be a matter of pragmatism rather than risk, a career calculation rather than a backing of talent. You should go in with a clear idea of what you might earn when you come out.
The thing that makes you smile about spending a little time in the new University of the Arts building is the feeling that, in the face of all that maths, the converse proposition still has the capacity to flourish. That’s the one that suggests that if universities have a primary purpose it is as forums of open curiosity and rigorous criticism, as microcosms of democracy and free inquiry. The one that says students should be totally immersed in the here and now of what they might be capable of, and that making money from it should not only be the very least of their concerns, but all the more likely the less thought they give to it. That the drive to marginalise such ambitions, and to make them off-limits to the “common people” of that other St Martin’s alumnus Jarvis Cocker, will have consequences far beyond the economic.
And that if we are to create a society that values public space and spirited collaboration and independent thought, that doesn’t measure everything in terms of personal gain, then the new University of the Arts feels like it could be as good a place as any from which to start.
But this has been marred by a collapse in its public funding, which has led UAL to embark on a radical restructure of its courses.
Set to lose more than £50m in public funding by 2015, the university, which comprises six colleges including Central Saint Martins (which is moving to the new campus), Chelsea College of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion (LCF), is having to think creatively about how it might secure its financial future.
Among other things, it is looking to set up courses in China and the Middle East while amalgamating three of its loss-making further education foundation courses and expanding its range of more lucrative postgraduate degrees.
It is not the only major art and design school under financial pressure. Goldsmiths also faces the loss of its teaching budget as it only runs arts
and humanities courses, which have been particularly hard hit by the funding cuts.
The postgraduate Royal College of Art
(RCA) plans to increase student numbers by 50% over the next three years to increase its income.
But of the big London art schools, UAL faces perhaps the greatest challenge. A relatively new university, it has undergone a series of significant structural changes, including the recent amalgamation of Byam Shaw School of Art and Central Saint Martins (CSM).
Nigel Carrington, rector of the UAL, admits the university is in a challenging financial position. Not only is it set to lose almost all its public funding for teaching over the next three years, but like other universities set up after 1992, it has already lost millions of pounds of research funding.
“There is a complete collapse of funding for universities like this,” says Carrington. “We have to assume we are being privatised. We will have virtually no public funding at all by 2015. We have £52m of teaching funding at the moment. We expect all but £1m-£2m of that to have gone by 2015.”
Over the last three years, he says, the institution has been hit hard by pretty much every budget cut, including a loss of just over 34% of its government funding for the coming academic year.
Last week, UAL announced its undergraduate fees would be £9,000 a year from 2012. Carrington says there isn’t much choice; by 2015, 75% of its income will come directly from its 20,000 students
and only about 5-7% will come from the public sector.
“It would be impossible for us to charge £6,000, given the high cost of running technical workshops and providing studio space in central London. We’re about to see a massive capital budget cut when we need to refurbish several of our sites.”
UAL has already taken “a huge number of efficiencies,” he says, including a redundancy programme that should shave about £4.5m from staff costs.
As well as expanding its overseas and postgraduate provision, plans include scaling back loss-making courses (including art foundation courses); amalgamating technical and support services, and expanding its short taught courses, which bring in about £10m a year. But Carrington admits that moving from “a public sector institution into an entrepreneurial institution” won’t be easy.
Efforts will be focused on maintaining UAL’s high number of international students
, who make up a quarter of the total. The London College of Fashion ran courses in Dubai last year aimed at attracting students to study in the UK. China is the next target – Carrington notes that the Chinese are “furiously building” art and design schools in a bid to stem the flow of young talent to the west.
“We are looking at whether we can teach something like a foundation [art foundation course] in China,” he explains. “Those who either can’t or don’t want to come here straight after school can do a course offshore, which is then quickly topped up here and then they go straight into our undergraduate courses. We’re not looking to set up an overseas campus – we’re looking at sending staff over.”
This plan is likely to prove controversial. The foundation course in art and design at the London College of Fashion is due to close in May, while from September, Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon foundation students will all be taught at a new venue in Camberwell, with the aim of steering them into UAL undergraduate courses rather than studying at rival art and design institutions.
But Susan Collins, director of the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London (UCL), is concerned that this will reduce access to degree courses. “Our worry is that getting rid of foundation courses is going to turn higher education
into an inverted pyramid,” she says.
Meanwhile, UAL is increasing its postgraduate portfolio, including a fashion MBA, while CSM will run six master’s courses, three practice-based MAs, including one in art and science, and three research-based MRes courses. Carrington also warns that postgraduate fees will jump to be the same as or slightly higher than those for undergraduate degrees as they are set to lose all their funding for new entrants from 2012.
But with students set to amass far greater debts due to rising undergraduate fees, UAL is trying to design courses that give students more time to work, not least because its students also have substantial material costs.
Its taught master’s degree programmes are increasingly what are known as “extended mode” courses, running two to three days a week over two years – putting them somewhere between a traditional part-time course and a full-time course. For example, the new photography MA will run on 3.5 days in the first year and 2.5 in the second, charging £3,800 per year – compared with £7,500 for the full-time MA at the RCA or £6,000 at the London College of Communication.
Mark Dunhill, the dean of fine arts at CSM, believes scholarships, bursaries and subsidised accommodation should be on offer for less well-off students to ensure art and design does not become “the preserve of the wealthy”.
He also believes arts institutions should be running more short courses and evening classes and offering modules that allow students to build up credits over a longer period of time as is common in the US. “There, they could choose whether they wanted to take a class in the morning or in the evening or do a ‘minimester’ in the summer. So maybe a kind of mixed economy, a mix of pay as you go and a loan.”
While Dunhill is reasonably optimistic that UAL and other big-name art and design colleges will adapt to the new market, he fears some non-specialist universities may dump departments to cut costs. “There’s a danger we could dismantle art education in response to market demand. To be honest, I think everyone is in a state of shock. I don’t think anyone believed this could happen. It’s such an assault on the success UK art schools have demonstrated over the past 20 years.”
It’s just after eight on a wet Wednesday evening, and a police van is hovering outside Sotheby’s in London. Several dozen protesters are staging a mock auction
beside the entrance. “Who wants our education system?” shouts a man dressed as a slick auctioneer. “Sold to the highest bidder!” Another protester stands in an empty picture frame held by two women in silver wigs. “Arts
against cuts!” the crowd roars, as the two policemen come forward to move the auctioneer gently but firmly away.
Art schools are the lifeblood of Britain’s arts scene, training painters, sculptors and conceptual artists, many of whom, like Damien Hirst (who studied at Leeds College of Art, and London’s Goldsmiths) and Tracey Emin (Maidstone Art College and the Royal College of Art), go on to have major international reputations. Others – from Keith Richards and the Clash to Malcolm McLaren, Franz Ferdinand and MIA – channel their artistic education into other areas, such as music. “The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp’s most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there,” says Jarvis Cocker, who famously studied film at Central St Martins in London. “But on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way.”
“The great thing about art schools,” says Patrick Brill, aka artist Bob and Roberta Smith
, who studied at Reading University and Goldsmiths, “is that they’re like the room Virginia Woolf talks about in A Room of One’s Own
. They give people the space to grow up and work out what art they want to make.”
So what knock-on effects might these changes have on the artists of this country? Inside art schools, there’s considerable anxiety. Of the four I contacted – Goldsmiths
(part of the University of London); Chelsea College of Art and Design
(part of London’s University of the Arts); Cardiff School of Art and Design
(part of the University of Wales Institute); and Leeds College of Art
– only Chelsea was happy for me to visit. “Emotions are running high,” explained Cardiff’s dean, Professor Gaynor Kavanagh. University funding in Wales has been cut by 12%, and the school has already announced plans to scrap four undergraduate degrees
(in interior architecture, media and visual culture, and two music technology courses) from next September, and to reduce student numbers from just under 1,400 to 1,000.
Chelsea have no plans to scrap courses or reduce numbers – yet. Nevertheless, dean David Garcia is concerned about the government’s funding decisions. “I do think they fail to recognise two things,” he says. “One, the importance of this sector to GDP, and to national wellbeing. And two, thinking that art courses are inexpensive to run. If our students are to continue to contribute to leading-edge art and design, we need the right kit – like looms and digital printers. And it is not cheap.”
In one of the college’s workshops, I watch these looms in action: a small group of third-year undergraduate textiles students are weaving deftly, sending multicoloured fabrics spilling from their machines. Their tutor, Lorna Bircham, has taught at Chelsea for 30 years. “Replacing equipment is a major issue,” she says. “The old looms aren’t really good enough – it takes a long time to learn on them – but new ones cost between £8,000 and £10,000. The other issue is time – this isn’t a subject that can be taught en masse; it has to be one-to-one. Over the years I’ve taught here, I’ve seen student numbers creep up, while the staffing has decreased. I can’t take a day off sick. I pedal harder and harder, but there will be a time when the chain will break.”
Several of the textiles students tell me that their finances are similarly stretched. Like all English students, they currently pay £3,290 a year towards their tuition, but on top of that they have to find the money for all their materials and equipment. “There are lots of costs on top of the fees,” says 21-year-old Nichola Schofield. “The other day, I spent £64 on six digital prints for a project. Every day, you have to make decisions – like if I make those prints, can I afford to eat tonight?”
Carey Ellis, 21, shows me a series of photographs she’s taken of street graffiti, pinned to a board above her desk; she plans to turn these into fabric designs. She voices the warning – shared by many of the student protesters, some of whom picketed the Turner prize-giving last year
– that a hike in tuition fees, whether to the £6,000 recommended by the government, or the maximum of £9,000, could put many students off going to university. (Chelsea, like other art schools, has not yet announced its fees for 2012-13, but a spokeswoman tells me that they are expecting to charge “in excess of £6,000”.)
“If the fees go up,” Ellis says, “it’s going to stop a ridiculous number of people from coming. It’s already affecting my own decisions about the future. I want to do an MA. I’d rather get more experience in the industry first, but if I delay going by a year, the fees will have gone up, and I won’t be able to afford it.”
In an adjacent building, a group of third-year graphic design students are hunched over their laptops, working on short films based around the Sky Arts logo, which they’re planning to pitch to the channel. Craig Sharp, 21, shows me his film, in which the camera pans across a dense web of trees until settling on brass letters that spell the word “arts”, embedded among glossy leaves.
“My parents discouraged me from going to art school,” he tells me. “I pay for everything – fees, rent, food – with loans and grants, and the money I’ve earned doing freelance graphic design. If the fees had been as much [as £9,000], I would never have been able to come.”
At the Sotheby’s protest, I meet Deborah, an 18-year-old foundation-year student at Camberwell College of Arts. “I really think that if the fees were kicking in during 2011 and 2012, I would be on a different life path,” she says. “My family are African, and they really disapprove of the idea of me getting into debt. I think if I went to them and said, ‘This course is going to cost me £9,000 a year,’ they would laugh.”
The government recognises the possibility that less well-off students could be put off applying to university, and has a number of measures planned to address this – from maintenance grants and bursaries, to university-run schemes working with state schools in deprived areas. As under the current system, students won’t have to pay fees upfront, but can take out loans which they will then begin to replay once they’re earning more than £21,000 (admittedly, a wage which is a remote possibility for most artists). But in art schools, the issue is particuarly pertinent. Unlike mainstream academic institutions, they have always drawn in a high number of students from working-class backgrounds – from John Lennon to David Hockney. Of the undergraduates currently at the University of the Arts London, for instance, 92% are from state schools who can ill afford the estimated £36,000 of debt resulting from a three-year course.
So what will happen if poorer students are unable to afford to go to art school? Could a body of art students drawn predominantly from wealthy backgrounds actually lead to a change in the nature of the art we see produced? “The possible effect,” says David Burrows, an artist and lecturer in fine art at the Slade, “is that the sort of art we will see being made will be narrower, a lot less interesting, and a lot less vital and relevant to people.”
Bob and Roberta Smith
takes this idea even further. “What you’ll get,” he tells me firmly, “is art made by the very wealthy for the very wealthy, becoming more and more disconnected from real culture. The question is, do we want a culture comprised solely of wealthy artists? Or do we want to see artists coming through like Emin and Hirst, who have an axe to grind? Isn’t their art much more interesting than what’s produced by the privileged few?”