Students at the art school of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 1932. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty
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The rear-view mirror is no basis to reflect on the future of education

Britain is globally famous for its creative education but people who prematurely mourn the death of art school are missing the real threat.

Unlike most of my contemporaries, I went to university in the bad old, unfair days. For the majority of you who weren’t there with me, what you’ve been told is true. The free education, the low cost of living, and, of course, the more or less guaranteed job at the end… such was a graduate’s rarity value.

I was reminded of the bad old days by recent jeremiads on the state of today’s art schools. With no exception, the judgements are based on a fictional past.

It is a truism that most famous artists, designers and musicians will have been somewhere near an art school. In fact, most famous people tend to have been somewhere near higher education. That’s the problem with inequality.

You’d expect successful people to have some affection for a system which worked for them. But what of the unacceptably high casualty rate, so effectively skewered in numerous campus novels? One high-flying academic recently described the old art school system as sink or swim: badly organised and inward-looking with no quality control, but of course also glamorous and charismatic in the rear-view mirror.

Glorifying our own youth is a terrible basis for constructive debate higher education. Nearly half of young people now go on to higher education, a tenfold rise in the last few decades. This is a deliberate policy choice. It is ideological, because it addresses inequality, and it is practical – with rapidly developing technology, our economy demands more highly skilled and educated workers than it did previously. Graduates have no rarity value now, and thank goodness.

As with most rapid expansion, we need to take care that we stabilise the foundations. This needs proper critical debate.

It is now a commonplace that, in Jarvis Cocker’s phrase, common people are being turned off university by fees. That’s an understandable part of the rhetoric against the fees system. It feels emotionally true. It also bears little resemblance to university enrolments. Four years after the rise in fees, UK students increasingly reflect the country’s socio-economic make-up. This is due to huge investment in widening participation schemes.

The real financial barrier faced by poorer students is the cost of living, especially in London. A student whose rent falls due long before their loan comes through will need a financial bridge or drop out. The education sector needs to evolve financial contingency and different modes of study to enable students to work at the same time, such as low residency or online courses.

There is, of course, good cause to militate against the higher education funding regime, even if it isn’t deterring poorer students from enrolling. The government approach to funding is notably devoid of a coherent policy objective. Put another way, it’s hard to see what the different funding decisions are supposed to add up to.

The Higher Education Commission last week pointed out that the undergraduate fees regime is economically unsustainable… for the government. With default rates expected to rise to 45 per cent, this is an enormous burden on future taxpayers, rather like public sector pensions.

In the meantime, the pipeline into and out of university is being hammered. We are about to see 17.5 per cent cuts to further education funding for under-19s. Funding for over-19s has already been replaced with loans. Worst of all, the withdrawal of postgraduate funding without even a loan system is catastrophic for aspiring UK/EU postgraduates. A thriving postgraduate community is essential if we are to train the academic leaders of the future. Without urgent action, a generation of academic staff – research and teaching – will be lost. All but the very top British universities will lose their standing internationally. 

In the face of this determined, if hapless, attack, you would expect people to leap to the defence of the academy. And this is where attacks on art school are so curious.

Britain indisputably leads the world in creative education and the creative sector, as George Osborne noted at the recent launch of the Creative Industries Federation. The sector employs more people than the financial sector. It is experiencing higher growth than the rest of the UK economy: 10 per cent between 2011 and 2013, compared to a 2.4 per cent in the wider UK economy.

Art schools maintain a constant stream of talent into the sector, and have evolved to deal with this growth and the expansion in student numbers. Most art schools are now part of universities. Buildings and teaching staff have increased in size. The core curriculum of fine art is taught alongside courses in technology, design, fashion and media. Research, innovation and enterprise are now important to the art school offer, if practically unknown last century.

If art school teaches one thing, it is that everything changes, including art school. Rather than mourning the past, we need to understand and support those changes, as a microcosm of wider, desirable changes in higher education and society.

Nigel Carrington is Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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