My column in April’s ArtReview magazine. Read the entire issue for free at www.artreviewdigital.com
What’s the value of an art college education? And is it really worth getting into shitloads of debt for? That’s the question that continues to grind away in the world of UK higher education, as students this year begin to face the new, austerity-era regime of £9,000-a-year tuition fees for an undergraduate degree, cooked up by our pantomime-horse liberal-conservative coalition government. Want to go to art college? Well, you could be looking forward to more than £40,000 of debt.
It’s a hefty chunk of money for any young person to have to carry round his neck just to get an education. But the really weird thing is that students still seem to be prepared to do it. In January and February, the UK university applications service, UCAS, came out with its annual statistics for the application cycle for 2012 entry – the first year that new undergraduates will have to pay up to a maximum £9,000 a year. Applications were down over seven percent on 2011. And fine-art courses saw a disproportionate fall in applications of 20 percent on the previous year.
But application stats are only half the story. After all, just because you apply for a degree course doesn’t mean you’ll get it. For fine-art courses, this year’s 20,743 applicants were still chasing only around 4,500 places. In other words, art college remains popular – more than four applicants for every college place going. It is as if the prospect of endless debt has little tangible reality or consequence in the here and now; rather, it is perceived as something that can be deferred to tomorrow, or the year after, or the decade after, or whenever. It just doesn’t compute, especially in a country where opportunities seem to be disappearing.
But what’s more worrying is that this bleak, short-termist attitude is also what’s driving the government’s reforms of university funding. It’s habitual for critics to decry the privatisation of education, but what is less commented on is that the financial base of the educational sector is, by the government’s reforms, quietly being buried away in one gigantic credit-card bill. It’s as if, for all the talk of the credit bubble that was the cause of the current recession, the same delusional policy – of pretending that today’s wealth can be extracted from some indefinite, faraway future – is being replayed in higher education. Because all those students don’t actually have £9,000 a year in cash, right? They’re borrowing it, from the government: in 2011, total public debt accumulated via loans to students studying in England (which effectively means money borrowed to pay universities) totalled £35 billion. By 2017, the government estimates this will reach £80b. This is a lot of dough for a stuttering economy like the UK’s to owe.
The biggest danger of this la-la land economic mirage is that no one is forced really to think about what kind of education is being provided, or the kind of education wished for, and at what real cost. Universities and art colleges would rather grab the £9,000-per-student and carry on spending as they always have done, on high salaries for managers and costly building projects, while studios and teaching budgets seem only to shrink. And students never really get an idea of where all their borrowed money is going, and are never forced to care about it, either.
In Walter Gropius’s rousing Bauhaus Manifesto and Program (1919), the not-very-often- quoted (and rather dull) last section lists the tuition fees students had to pay to study at the Bauhaus – 180 marks a year. This was also a lot of dough, at a time when average annual incomes were counted in two or three thousand marks. But the students probably weren’t getting student loans out to study with Gropius or Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky or those other pioneers of modernist art education, nor were those students just the children of the rich: in her 1990 study, Bauhaus 1919–1933, Magdalena Droste writes that ‘it is today impossible to imagine the poverty and destitution of which the Bauhaus students suffered in Weimar. Gropius arranged gifts of clothing and free midday meals. Many were barely able to pay for their tuition.’
Now, there’s nothing romantic about such privations; yet in the new era of study-now-pay-later education, that personal commitment to scraping together just enough to be able to study somewhere really inspiring at least has the virtue of forcing one not to settle for the mediocre. Rather than the debt-addicted, bureaucratically run colleges that students are currently forced to choose from, it might be time for artists and educators to go back to the drawing board, to reinvent what’s important about an art college, strip out what isn’t, and do it in such a way that students don’t have to mortgage their futures to afford it.