State of the arts: How to get a free creative education

Who can afford a UK arts education? As our art, design and architecture courses have become entirely bankrolled by fat fees from European and international students, resourceful educators are trying to find ways to ensure access, diversity and creativity are maintained. But it’s an uphill struggle.


Words: Veronica Simpson

If Chris Ofili had been born 20 years later, he believes he would never have become an artist: growing up in a terraced house in Manchester in far from affluent circumstances, he took advantage of both full grants and bursaries to complete his education at Chelsea School of Art followed by an MA at the Royal College of Art. The prospect of ending up with debts in excess of £30,000 as a 2015 graduate would have nixed the development of his unique perspective from the off. Ryan Gander, another leading British artist, recently told the Financial Times: 'When I am teaching, increasingly I notice that most of my students come from wealthy backgrounds.'

This is the first year that UK art and design students will be graduating having paid an average of £9,000 a year in fees for their courses. Added to living costs of up to £12,000 a year in London, that means their debts could total as much as £63,000. Architecture students have not yet borne the full brunt -- the cohort that began before 2012 is still only paying fees of £3,000 a year. The prospects for future undergraduates are grim indeed, as SCHOSA (Standing Conference for Heads of Schools of Architecture) recently predicted, with a graph showing the interest on tuition-fee debt outstripping salary increases for a typical architect, even over a 30-year career.

Martin Hanly’s degree show work at Central Saint Martins
Martin Hanly's degree show work at Central Saint Martins

As the cost has escalated, student demographics and nationalities have transformed. For example, there has been a huge influx of East Asian students in the past few years in all of the top colleges, as China and South Korea in particular power ahead with their mission to develop and nurture their own design industries. They realise that a diverse and thriving creative sector is vital to any nation's future resilience (China in particular needs lots of talented arts graduates to staff its 1,000 new art schools). Don't you wish they would have a word with the UK Government? After the Lib-Con coalition government downgraded all higher education arts and design courses to a C category (that is, not requiring state funding, unlike all the core STEM subjects of Science, Technology, English and Maths), our homegrown undergraduate -- but especially the postgraduate -- populations have shrunk.

Surveys of how this has impacted on student populations are being produced, emerging around the same time as this article, and the statistics for UK students are not going to be pretty. Though Britain's creative sector has always thrived on its absorption of international talent too -- often siphoned straight from our leading colleges into working with UK studios and practices -- now, to add insult to injury, we can't even hang on to them, as current immigration policies mean they must be kicked out immediately after graduation (with a small possibility of a reprieve, if smart practices snap them up before graduation and sponsor them to remain). All aspects of arts education have been affected by this shift from a state-funded to a 'for-profit' model; from fine art to fashion the quality of what is being produced has inevitably been affected along with the diversity of who is being taught.

Let's touch on the problems of diminishing demographic diversity, for starters: Suzy Menkes, writing in Vogue in summer 2014, declared 'Fashion universities in the UK are facing a crisis... Since the law governing tuition fees and student loans changed in 2010, putting English education on a par with the established American system, it is harder than ever to imagine a Lee [Alexander] McQueen, a brilliant, wilful taxi driver's son, making it through college today.' Harder still to imagine where the next Jonathan Ive (Newcastle Polytechnic-educated guru of the world's most successful design-led technology company, Apple) might come from, unless he's lucky enough to be Scottish and secure one of the small number of free places offered under the quota for 'home students' at a Scottish college.

The final collection of Arthur Sinclair, a BA (Hons) bespoke tailoring year 3 student at the London College of Fashion. Bianca Guthrie Ba (Hons) Fashion Styling and Photography, Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa, Model: Efua Boateng, Mua: Dora Simpson
The final collection of Arthur Sinclair, a BA (Hons) bespoke tailoring year 3 student at the London College of Fashion. Bianca Guthrie Ba (Hons) Fashion Styling and Photography, Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa, Model: Efua Boateng, Mua: Dora Simpson

Diversity is something close to most arts educators' hearts. Cass School of Architecture's dean Robert Mull puts it simply: 'If education is not representative of a society then it isn't acceptable. It's an operational issue, not a moral issue: as we rediscover and become more adept at architecture as a social art then there is a need for a diverse range of voices within that endeavour. I think we're impoverished if there isn't.'

Terry Finnigan, head of widening participation at the London College of Fashion, is particularly concerned: 'You need to have diversity. The world's markets are global. With fashion, as with any creative subject, it's the diversity that makes it work so well. Art and design is all about identity and self-expression.' Finnigan believes that the richer the mix, the more interesting the output, hence her commitment to LCF's outreach programme (see case study).

Hadrian Garrard, director of leading public art agency Create -- a co-founder of the free art school Open School East (see case study) -- says: 'Over the past 40 years or so, I believe it is social mobility and the crucial role of the education system that has put the UK in such a leading position internationally in terms of pop music, art, design, fashion and architecture. We're seeing this grind to a halt presently, and with that I think we're in danger of giving up what has made this country so productive in... art, ideas and culture.'

The final collection of Arthur Sinclair, a BA (Hons) bespoke tailoring year 3 student at the London College of Fashion. Bianca Guthrie Ba (Hons) Fashion Styling and Photography, Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa, Model: Efua Boateng, Mua: Dora Simpson

Which brings us to quality. No one would, for a minute, declare that students from outside the UK can't draw, paint, design or build every bit as skilfully as our home-grown talent. But there is a spirit of daring, of imaginative exploration and interrogation that underpins the best of British output, fostered by the best of the UK's arts education establishments. As one MA textiles tutor at a leading London art college said: '[That culture of daring] is one of the key reasons why there are British art-school graduates in every leading fashion house in New York.' When people from very socially conforming and didactic teaching cultures are put through the often anarchic UK art-school process, a great deal can get 'lost in translation'.

It's a question of acclimatisation rather than aptitude. As the aforementioned tutor privately asserted: the work of students from very different cultures can be just as bold, 'when these students have already been through a UK BA programme'. Education is a collective experience. If you lose too many students whose cultural sensibilities respond easily to the call for critical thinking and provocation, the risk is that the whole course could end up drifting towards safer, more obvious and commercial -- arguably less interesting -- work.

Courses have already been launched to help students make the necessary adjustments. For international architecture students entering the UK system at Masters level, The Bartlett has launched a 'pre-Masters' course. Professor of Architecture and Urbanism, CJ Lim, explains: 'After Part One we insist -- or at least highly recommend -- they take a year out, maybe do an internship... [that] allows them to mature, to ask themselves: "What do I want to do?"; "Do I want to continue?" From Korea, Japan, China, the Middle East, they come from a different culture to suddenly land here [where they find] a very different way of learning and teaching. We collectively said we want to prepare our international students slightly better. We'll teach them the culture of research, the culture of critical thinking, the value of understanding a renaissance community, having a renaissance mindset. It's not about the construction of the object or space -- it's really important that they understand architecture is not about making four walls and a roof.'

The final collection of Arthur Sinclair, a BA (Hons) bespoke tailoring year 3 student at the London College of Fashion. Bianca Guthrie Ba (Hons) Fashion Styling and Photography, Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa, Model: Efua Boateng, Mua: Dora Simpson

For undergraduates University of London's Goldsmiths has developed its BA fine art 'extension' course. Specifically designed for students from non-EU countries, the prospectus claims it will 'enable you to work independently as an artist, and to generate and develop your own ideas'. Language as well as cultural and educational issues are fine-tuned during this year-long, pre-BA course, and programme leader Jacqueline Pennell sees it reaping huge rewards in the ease with which these students accelerate up the learning curve once they begin their BA proper. She points out that the benefits to UK students of our art colleges' greater geographic diversity far outweigh the challenges.

Pennell continues: 'International students bring cultural diversity, a broader spectrum of opinion and ideas leading to complex discussions about the work they and their peers produce. This rich mix of nationalities helps to prepare British and other European students better for the global art market. It is the institutions' responsibility to provide the relevant support to international students so that they can progress within the British education system. If they receive the support they need and the respect that they are due, international students can perform as well as any other student. We should have respect for these students and celebrate what they bring to the academic environment.'

Pennell reports that 'there has been an incremental increase in student numbers... for British, European and International applicants over the past few years. International fees help to maintain quality in the provision for all students, since without their contributions the resources would be substantially stretched'.

But there is a potentially more menacing downside to the huge cost for international students, who are paying as much as £30,000 a year in fees alone: the desire to get maximum value for their investment inevitably leads the most talented students to pick the top-performing universities and colleges, which will have a knock-on effect on the rest. Casualties are expected -- there will be closures, as one insider declared. Another course leader privately admitted: 'The lower-ranking universities that don't have a research profile [to offset the cost of their arts courses] will suffer because they're not getting the money. If you don't get the money, you don't feature on the top table, so you don't get the best students; you get the weak students. It's a spiral. You end up taking students that are not qualified to be there, shouldn't be there, or because they can pay. It is tough out there.'

If it's tough for the middling colleges, it's even tougher for students who don't have access to any kind of financial cushion or loans. Though a percentage of the fees harvested is meant to be offset for bursaries, they can only go so far. The Cass sees plenty of casualties, says Mull: 'There's a degree of support [available] but a significant number of students are put off by the concept of debt. And what that means is a lot of students are working full time -- not in architecture offices but in marginal parts of the economy -- simply to live. We see a lot of students who are incredibly stressed and troubled.' Likewise, London College of Fashion's Finnigan says: 'Sometimes it's a question of whether they can afford to catch the bus to college or to eat.'

A year out mid-course working in the relevant industry has become increasingly common in fashion and other arts subjects, as a way of providing both experience and income (another reason why the practice of unpaid internships should be discouraged). In architecture, too, the line between education and practice is becoming more fluid, says Mull: 'We have found a way of helping students to bring their own live projects and obsessions into the college and use it as part of their education. That's a sophisticated version of part-time education, where the boundaries between education and real life are extremely permeable. We have a project office we set up in 2004 that supports students in doing that. So, they're learning and earning around their own work.' In this way, such leading lights of architecture's new wave, Studio Weave and Assemble, were essentially forming their own practices while studying at The Cass and other institutions.

Mull thinks several others are going down this route, the University of East London School of Architecture, and Portsmouth among them, and the newly launched London School of Architecture (LSA). There are multiple benefits to this approach, especially when the cohort has truly diverse experience and backgrounds. Says Mull: 'We're doing a live project in Hayes at the invitation of the MP there and part of that has been long-term engagement with all sorts of different communities on certain housing estates. We've had Bangladeshi students working with local communities on projects [using] textiles and making, and our students are very effective in those situations. The normal power balance of conventional education and privilege is shifted... Students who might have been perceived as disadvantaged become very powerful.' The approach of the schools should reflect the evolution of architecture as a practice, says Mull: 'It's really important to involve students in the world in a productive way. It's a fundamental perceptual shift -- rather than academia being a place removed from practice, it's a place where the relationship is negotiated and fluid and on-going.'

At a time when information is free, the value of everything is being questioned, especially education. Inevitably, people are exploring alternatives. The old arts school approach will seem less and less relevant if it retrenches into a high-cost, low-value version of what it used to be. The world is shifting around us towards something much more collaborative and entrepreneurial -- of which the LSA is a shiny new example. Essentially crowdfunded, it has been hatched from initial concept to first intake in just three years, with a third-lower fees than the norm. It offers a pioneering programme of mutually beneficial research and training for 25 students provided by 50 practices. It has no HQ, is borrowing the Design Museum for lectures, and uses the city of London, in all its glorious complexity, as the key subject matter. I suggest to its founder and director Will Hunter that 10 years ago nothing like this would have been possible. 'Even five years ago,' he suggests, 'it would have been inconceivable.'

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