GLAD conference – thoughts on the purpose of higher education in Art & Design

I attended the Group for Learning & Teaching in Art & Design conference last week. It is the organisation’s 25th anniversary and the opening panel’s task was to reflect upon the change in art & design higher education over that period.

Obviously the panel was made up of people old enough to comment (one I know celebrates their 70th birthday this year). Linda is a fair bit younger than the others I believe:

    • Linda Drew – ex UAL and GSA, new director of Ravensbourne
    • Simon Lewis (Painting) – PVC and Head of College at Nottingham Trent
    • David Buss – UCCA – strategy and QA kind of things I think.
    • David Vaughn – not sure where he was from.

Given the current focus of my doctoral work on the purpose of higher education, I listened in for opinions on the following:

    • What is the purpose of an art & design higher education?
    • What does it mean to be well-educated in an art & design context?
    • What is the nature of the art & design disciplines/forms of knowledge?

I learned about the conception of the National Advisory Board (around 1990), and its mechanistic aim to match up number of student places in specific fields (e.g. architecture) with demand for those particular skills/jobs available. The implication was a reduction in the number of institutions offering certain courses (to avoid over-supply). The following years saw increased funding pressure on the polytechnic sector and forced fresh consideration of its aims and purpose. Massification saw an expansion in student numbers with no increase in resources or change in teaching methods. Staff-student ratios could no longer be maintained and institutions needed to think anew how to deliver a creative education; a central challenge being to gather enthusiasm for examining the pedagogy of art and design subjects; to see an opportunity without being the fanboys of government.

Many A&D colleges (most recently Edinburgh College of Art) have now become subsumed into Universities. The panel spoke of the consequences of this; A&D educators coming up against very bright people from subject disciplines; academics who ‘knew about more about the concepts of creativity than they did’. Creative disciplines have since become more theorised. It was suggested that perhaps practice is something that universities don’t really understand. Where does A&D fit in the academic structure of the University? Is its natural place with the Humanities? Simon Lewis proposed that ‘humanities people are different kinds of people’, and A&D is better partnered with Engineering as the disciplines share a common focus on design process and audience. Another point raised was that, while A&D may be expensive and take up a lot of space, it brings many benefits to a sympathetic institution.

Many larger specialist institutions now have University status. While they have retained their own identity and ethos (to an extent), academisation has raised questions that some feel have not been answered satisfactorily. What is a practice-based PhD? Should degree courses be modularised (and how)? How do we cater for those who want and need a broader creative education, alongside those who intend to specialise? On this last point, the panel agreed that some pluralisation of provision is needed; courses that are broad all the way through or at least don’t force a specialism within a few months (or weeks in the case of Foundation).

My concern is that for many students these days it is less about the journey than the bottom line. Faced with a requirement to personally invest £27,000, students need to be assured they they will be a marketable product at the end of this. Or do they? Perhaps institutions are projecting what they think students want. Maybe – like the guy I met on the train to Sheffield – they just want to study something they love, and hope for the best. For some – including many international students – mum and dad are paying. Others, I’m sure, don’t envisage ever paying back their loans, or are choosing not to worry about it now. Some will believe the rhetoric that they won’t even notice the loan repayments when they’re on a salary (note to students – you will). I chose to do a five year doctorate rather than a three year one because I knew I needed to learn and explore before writing a thesis, but I knew UAL would give me significant help with my fees. I don’t think I would have made such a sensible decision about my own education otherwise.

The fees issue came up in the discussion – of course it did – and I was disappointed at the consensus, which was ‘well, more people are going to University now. Someone’s got to pay for it.’ Say what?! It pays for itself through producing individuals who generate more tax revenue over the course of their lives – an additional £125,000 on average from each graduate; and that’s just one financial ’bottom line’, which may be lower if you just look at A&D graduates but it’s an average – that’s the point. Creative, interdisciplinary thinkers are essential to society in other ways that contribute to a healthy ‘real’ bottom line of happiness and fulfilment. Someone’s got to pay – yes, so let’s all pay. Scrap Trident, close the tax loopholes. Making people pay for their own education individually is not an educationally neutral decision; it impacts on attitudes to learning, on attitudes to the provision of education, and on teaching itself.

I wanted to say to the panel – It’s ok for you – you benefited from a free higher education, are clearly earning a lot of money, have probably paid off your tiny mortgages and are counting the days to receiving your final salary pension. I could speculate that you’re ‘sensibly’ investing your spare cash in buy-to-let and pushing the price of a one-bed flat up way beyond the reaches of a senior lecturer – even now I’ve paid off my student loans – but I don’t want to get too personal/specific/bitter. What I hear is ‘well, someone’s got to pay for it and it’s not going to be me. I’m all right, Jack.’

Whooops. Ranting again! I made some notes on the morning and afternoon parallels so may follow this up with some more reflections on the day 🙂

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