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

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: George Osborne puffs away

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The Tory bouncer Iain Duncan Smith is licking his wounds after Labour’s sisterhood reclaimed the blokey bar of the House. The former army captain liked to glower at opponents with a gang of men by the line opposite the Speaker’s chair.

Before the summer recess, the front row was occupied by the MPs Jo Stevens, Tracy Brabin, Cat Smith and Yasmin Qureshi, who refused to budge when IDS tried to push through. Labour is determined to make life uncomfortable for the majority-less Tories.

Signs of Ukip’s tentacles extending into the tragic Charlie Gard case include the press officer Gawain Towler using the party’s official email account to distribute “for a friend” campaign statements. Meanwhile, the defeated parliamentary candidate Alasdair Seton-Marsden has surfaced as a spokesman. He is accused by TV news shows of tricky behaviour and of trying to exploit the tragedy. His big idea was to have Nigel Farage interview the parents. Ukip likes to keep everything in its own family.

The baronet’s son George Osborne – the vengeful sacked chancellor pretending that everything from Brexit to pay caps has nowt to do with him, now that he edits a London free sheet – is a secret smoker. My snout whispers that the Chancer favours Vogue Menthol, an appropriately upmarket brand of cigarette. He was always too grand for fags.

Many Labour MPs are reluctant to sit on select committees. An internal report from the Parliamentary Labour Party identifies one vacancy on science, two on public administration, Wales and petitions, plus three on environment.

The list shows Keith Vaz switching from justice to international trade. Jim the washing machine salesman would doubtless approve.

Parliament’s expensive programme to protect MPs after the assassination of Jo Cox isn’t going entirely to plan. Workers installing an intruder alarm at an MP’s home in northern England apparently caused £1,400 of damage drilling through a water pipe. The company responsible should brace itself for questions about subcontracting and unskilled labour.

The Tory right-whinger Peter “dry as a” Bone spent four nights on an inflatable mattress in a room next to the private bill office to table a forest of draft legislation that, fortunately, has no chance of becoming law. Mrs Bone probably enjoyed the break.

The party’s over for the SNP, with the Nats abandoning parliament’s Sports and Social Bar since losing 21 seats in June. Westminster staff celebrated with a drink. SNP MPs cheering for whichever country played England was an own goal. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue