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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Poem: "When the Americans came"

“Do you have vampires around here?”

When the Americans came,

they didn’t take to our gardens:

the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,

foxgloves growing among the runner beans.


“Do you have vampires around here?”

a visitor from Carolina asked me.

It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,

nodding wisely as though apologising


for the ill manners of King George,

the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.

But come the softe sonne,

there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,


forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,

lettuce and spring onions for a salad.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat*


I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,

and didn’t care to listen to a boy.

They preferred the red rosehips

we used for making wine.


Danced outside the village church

round the maypole Jack Parnham made.

Now they’re gone,

the wild garlic has returned.


* W B Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


William Bedford is a novelist, children’s author and poet. His eighth collection of verse, The Bread Horse, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood