Opting Out

'It's your world. What will you change?' It sounds like the heady rhetoric of liberation or collective revolution that harks back to the days of May 68, where anything seemed possible.

It is in fact the strapline of an advert for Middlesex University's Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, run in last month's Art Monthly, and it's ironic that it followed directly on from the troubled debate on the state of art education in Britain. It reminds us that higher education has become a business, a business that does not necessarily sell knowledge, but rather the potential experience of individuated, personal transformation, which reduces learning to no more than a set of purchasable access points to the development of a secure, professional career.

Such issues are pertinent to the debate on the perceived crisis in art education. As some contributors in last month's letters agree, it is more than simply about money, though money currently tends to be the catalyst through which bigger questions emerge. As Graham Crowley observed in his opening letter (AM315): 'This is not a matter of resourcing, it's a matter of priorities ... Management culture has led to the prioritisation of the administrative over the academic.' So the debate over the future of art education needs to address whether the formation of young artists and the development of art's culture is best served by art education's cur rent location within the mainstream infra structure of higher education.

It's now more than obvious that the combination of bureaucratisation, managerialism and commercialisation of the last two decades has not served art education well; the amalgamation of colleges, their incorporation into the one size fits all university model, and the move to a fee-paying, consumer led culture of education has not been to the benefit of art students, which is why students are increasingly frustrated with the provision they find on our art courses. Their frustration is not at all surprising. Take the much-maligned University of the Arts London. In its annual report for 2007, UAL's expenditure is listed as £161.5m, yet its payments to employees in 'teaching departments' comes in at little more than £70.6m. (UAL's rector, by the way, earned a tidy £250,000.) In other words, less than half of the university's expenditure goes directly to teaching. It's not hard to do the maths, especially if you're a student having to find the £3,145 a year for your BA, or the £3,300 a year for a Masters - less than half of what you pay counts towards your teaching, while the rest goes on buildings, managers, research and admin.

Such ratios should be seen as scandalous, and are the simple economic roots of current poor provision. So perhaps the heretical question should be raised: given that the fee paying commercialisation of higher education is now the accepted norm, might it not be time to relocate art education to the relative independence of the private sector, free of the dead weight of QAAs, RAEs and managerial salaries? Having assiduously commercialised education over the last decade, perhaps the government should not be surprised if some risk-taking artists who care about art education set up shop: should we now be thinking of a new wave of unaligned art schools, unaccredited, financially independent, yet with reputations built by the quality of their staff, rather than their balance sheet? Surely some one can do the job better - and cheaper - than current provision.

That such devolution seems like an attractive option is entirely the result of a government instinctively suspicious of any degree of autonomy and independence in the institutions it oversees. Micromanagement and bureaucratisation are the hall marks of New Labour's approach to public services across the board, not just higher education. What is at stake then is money, but more importantly the educational culture that we aspire to, and how we secure the independence and autonomy necessary to develop the culture we want as artists and educators. If it cannot be secured in the cur rent context, why not make another?

Nevertheless, such questions fall under the shadow of the more general commoditisation of the culture of education, and the continued thrall exerted by the image of the cultural industries as a fruitful career path. While students may complain about their experience at art colleges in the National Student Satisfaction Survey, they are nevertheless opting for degrees classified as 'creative arts and design' in increasing numbers, while student numbers in many so-called serious subjects - maths, engineering, physics - are experiencing noticeable decline. The government's creative industries economic mantra, though now looking more than a little tattered, nevertheless continues to chime with a generation who value self-expression and personal creativity as an escape from the boring world of work; and the shimmering promise of a career as a creative - rather than just another service sector minion - still beckons, even if the reality of making it remains, except for a tiny minority, elusive.

This is where art education encounters the diminished cultural and social horizons of the current moment: rather than a space for free experiment and investigation, with little regard for careers or professional out comes, art education's de facto privatisation has bred an acute conservatism among students over the nature of their success. While complaints about poor provision are legitimate, these are often tinged with the value for-money mentality of consumers who aren't satisfied what they expect from their purchase. In this situation, it is all too easy for managers to use the complaints of students against teaching staff, and the 'customer is always right' culture does little to accustom students to the experience of robust criticism or demands for intellectual rigour, while the weary hypocrisy of passing students who should be failed is imposed by managers who value the income far more than the educational standards of the teaching staff.

It seems unlikely that we will return to an era of state-funded, free education, so how should we think of art education that can go beyond the narrowed culture of consumerism and bureaucracy? Whether it is achieved within the present system of higher education, or whether it happens in some new, untried territory of independent activity, the key question is how art education reclaims its independence, and how artists re-establish the sense of autonomy to teach in the way they see fit. Because meanwhile, there are vague rumours that certain powerful collectors are quietly looking into the possibilities of establishing an art school. If we value artistic freedom as something more than merely the freedom of the art market, the prospect of the formation of private academies closely tied to private interest makes this discussion ever more urgent. It's our world. What will we change?


Published in Art Monthly no 317, June 2008 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated