The old Central Saint Martins building in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is this the end of the British art school?

Art schools used to be a place where the socially and intellectually marginal could distinguish themselves. Now, with unattainable entry requirements and a hefty price tag, they’re becoming a dwelling place for commercial interests and the children of the international elite.

When the Great Exhibition opened its doors in 1851, Britain’s reputation as the workshop of the world was on the wane. Few visitors would have known it at the time, but the exhibition signified the high watermark of British manufacturing. French design and Prussian engineering were already edging ahead. In 2012, London hosted another event designed to present Britain to the world – one which referenced the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution by featuring towering smoke stacks and beating drums.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony represented British history as a creative blossoming that started in the nineteenth century but seemed to reach its zenith in the twentieth century when fashion, film and pop music boomed. And yet it seems to me that Boyle’s Olympic opener – just like the Great Exhibition – was telling a story about Britain that had already ceased to be true. The circumstances which made it possible for artists to thrive in Britain during the twentieth century are rapidly disappearing. And perhaps one of the most essential changes is in our art schools.

Name any one of the UK’s most famous designers or musicians, never mind artists, and they are likely to have set foot in an art school at one time or other: David Bowie, Pete Townsend, Brian Eno, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano. I could go on and on. Economist Hasan Bakhshi of innovation charity Nesta says that he is frequently asked about how we run our art schools by educationalists abroad. Art schools are perceived by many as the key to our creative success.

Yet art schools have changed dramatically over the last 20–30 years, causing many to question whether they will, in the future, cultivate the innovators we so badly need. Art schools used to be havens for students who, for whatever reason, had not found their niche in the traditional academic system. Now prospective art students very often have to prove their academic credentials to compete for a place at the most prestigious colleges. Once on the course, art students have to submit an increasing volume of written work, arguably a distraction from practical skills and craft.

Tuition fees have made higher education in Britain more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, and art schools are no exception. This means that the social and economic mix is disappearing (students from poorer backgrounds being less inclined to take out a loan for a non-vocational subject such as fine art). What’s more, art schools are going out of their way to attract foreign students for the extra income they bring. Unsurprisingly, there is deep concern among many artists and teachers that the age of the art school is over: workshops for ceramics, printing, and metalwork have been replaced by computer rooms, digital expertise is prioritised before craft; student numbers are rocketing and teaching hours are sinking.

Designer Jay Osgerby graduated with a Masters in architecture from the Royal College of Art. He’s one of a generation of British designers who are now leading design practice around the world, in every field from fashion to technology. The head of Burberry, Christopher Bailey, was in the same year as Jay and his partner Edward Barber; Thomas Heatherwick was another who attended the RCA around the same time; and Apple’s Jonathan Ive was an industrial design student at Newcastle Polytechnic.

Osgerby remembers the RCA as a place where people were constantly making things. The lift was continuously crammed with half-made dresses and furniture being ferried up and down. The RCA, he believes, still manages to hold on to this highly practical ethos, but everywhere he sees the rise of computers taking the place of the hand-made: computers, he says “make you look like an innovator rather than a throw-back to the industrial revolution, but I think that’s a really big mistake.”

The truth is that workshops are expensive and that’s a good enough reason to get rid of them. As education is effectively privatised, art school managers are more interested in business models than the experience of students. An art school such as Central Saint Martins (part of the University of the Arts London) recruits around 40 per cent of its BA students from overseas. It also runs short courses for members of the public. This extra income allows the art school to do a few “special things”, says its head Jeremy Till, such as putting on two degree shows so splendid they attracted almost 50,000 people earlier this year. He says the new building at Kings Cross (where the art school moved from its West End site in 2011) makes the art school a “cultural destination”. Never mind the fact that some staff and students feel uncomfortable with the monolithic, anonymous architecture (one tutor told me that there’s never enough studio space for everyone, you can’t open windows, and you no longer meet people from other courses despite the fact that everyone is now on the same premises.)

So is it necessary to impress the public with a dazzling building and exciting brand? Jeremy Till would tell you that it’s exactly this kind of self-presentation that’s encouraged Google to locate its European offices right next door to Central Saint Martins’ new building at Kings Cross in North London. And maybe he’s got a point. Google might offer jobs to some of the young “creatives” who step out of Saint Martins’ sliding doors. But there’s a balance to be struck. If Central Saint Martins isn’t concentrating attention – above all – on the experience of students within its walls, then the shiny exterior will become just that – a façade, a front, a shop window. Nothing more.

Art School, Smart School, produced by Isabel Sutton, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22 November at 8pm

Update: this piece was edited on 25 November to fix an attribution error

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.