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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser