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Stamping down on the students: has the UK’s largest art school gone too far?

17 April 2015

For an organisation that carefully manages its public profile, the recent decision by University of the Arts London (UAL) to serve injunctions to 15 of its own protesting students for occupying the reception area of Central Saint Martins seems heavy-handed. Hauled into the law courts and asked to pay their own legal fees, the students can at least take heart that the university has created a public relations disaster and provided them with an extra megaphone for their grievances.

The protesters, including seven student union representatives, staged a sit-in beginning on 19 March in response to the university’s decision to slash student places for their foundation programme and reduce spending on widening participation. The protests can be seen as a much broader national student response to the ideological war waged on humanity subjects by the government. With the continuing marketisation of universities, students are increasingly asking legitimate questions about the state of the education system.

In What Are Universities For? (2012) author Stefan Collini asserts that the historical role of the university is close to the role of the gallery – it is a place of open enquiry that should emphasise learning over training (and there is an ocean of difference between these two processes). Art and design foundation courses are the research and development phase of a student’s experience; they allow people to make mistakes and try things out. In my experience, everyone joins a foundation course wanting to be an artist yet many leave to study architecture, graphic design, or fashion, or having decided that art school isn’t really for them. Under the rhetoric of efficiency, universities are forgetting the fundamental benefits of time and risk that are of real value to the artists and designers of tomorrow.

Of course the question here is that under the strain of austerity and neo-liberal concerns, activity without outcomes is relegated as a priority – you can’t really monetise it immediately. I should say here that I worked for UAL briefly as part of the central widening participation department and I can attest to some of the wonderfully committed people who are working there, some of whom are now threatened with redundancy. They really did create opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to come and study at university (and not always at UAL). Many of these students were the first in their families to enter higher education and have subsequently gone on to become significant artists and designers.

The major barrier to higher education for working class children isn’t just the money: it’s about language and confidence. The opportunity to come on free widening participation and foundation courses offers a moment to acclimatise to the specific demands of art school. The erosion of opportunities at this level is worrying but symptomatic of the climate of profit that now pervades our universities. UAL’s stated aim to ‘reduce the burden of further education and the associated living costs’ in an attempt to provide a more efficient educational experience misses the point somewhat. From my own experience, I learned more on the first six months of my foundation course at Falmouth College of Art than at any other time of my life. The course offered a necessary bridge between secondary and higher education: it was a culture shock to say the least.

UAL is one of the largest cultural brands in the UK and should take its responsibilities seriously. No matter what universities say publicly, students are now customers and one can’t help but feel that reducing parts of their free programming is a commercially-driven decision. The dissolution of these opportunities increases the risk of a cultural homogeneity where only the wealthy can afford a good education, flattening rather than diversifying the cultural industries.

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