Published Rowenna Davis, The Observer, Sunday 30 October 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/30/art-and-design-students-college-fees
“You don’t see many chavs going into the Tate, do you?” says 19-year-old Tom Keynes, with a sardonic grin. Perched on a wall outside the 1960s concrete block of Camberwell Arts College, the first-year sculpture student adds: “My parents like the Sun and Coronation Street … The stereotype of the arts is that it’s some crazy bullshit that’s stuck up.”
He is making his claims about elitism from the inside, and is in good company. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Vivienne Westwood all railed against the privileged art world that came to be theirs, adding an edgy voice to the mainstream British arts scene.
But as the seasons turn on college campuses, there is a growing anxiety that Britain’s illustrious creative record is being imperilled by funding changes that could deter poorer students and put courses at risk. The numbers are stark. While application deadlines for 2012 are not until January, the latest Ucas figures show a 27% decline in applications for creative art and design courses compared with this time last year. There has been a similar decline of just under 8% across all other degree types.
Although Universities UK says it is too early to comment on the figures, experts fear that the double grip of increasing fees – with many colleges starting to charge the full £9,000 a year – and the perceived lack of stable income in creative industries is already putting students off creative subjects.
The latest figures suggest that one in three arts graduates is unemployed three years after their graduation.
“I’d be more cautious if I was applying now,” says Alex McLuckie, 23, who is in his second year of fine art and photography at Camberwell, mingling among other students in paint-splattered overalls on his break. “Very few people [arts graduates] go on to be successful artists, critics or creators, but you know that if you do law, economics or science the money is there.”
Art and design colleges are anxiously waiting to see if applications will pick up. Less than 10 years ago, a similar autumn survey showed a growth rate of 25% in the same period. Many courses were still oversubscribed last year, so the drop may only indicate that students are shopping around longer before deciding.
But if numbers continue to stagnate, there are concerns that some courses, particularly smaller ones such as sculpture, 3D design and the two-year foundation course at Camberwell, might close.
Natalie Brett, dean at Camberwell College of Arts, says the government is not doing enough to inform students about the changes to higher education funding and that this is “putting people off”. She says that increased bursaries have not kept pace with increased costs, particularly as arts students often worry about supplementing costs for their materials. Brett fears that students will not apply because of a mistaken belief that they will be taking on too big a burden.
“We’re having to put a lot of support into helping individuals understand the fee changes,” she said. “Students think they have to repay loans straight away and will carry a huge debt for a very long time … They are not understanding full terms of the debt and how it might – or might not – affect them long-term.”
Brett says this lack of information may hit students from non-traditional backgrounds hardest: “I do have a concern about losing talent … The more diverse opinion you have, the more interesting the work becomes. If you lose that, you’re pitching to the same people all the time and the art suffers.”
Universities UK says that student fears about finding work in the arts need to be challenged. Chief executive Nicola Dandridge points out that the UK has “one of the largest and most successful creative sectors in the world” which, after a boom in the past decade, now employs 8% of the country’s workforce.
Although the prevalence of freelance work in the arts means that graduates may take two or three years to get themselves established, creative industries are still the third-highest earnings businesses. For those who can afford to hold on, the rewards can be worthwhile.
From Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway lines in the 19th century to James Dyson’s vacuum cleaners, Britain’s artists and designers have always punched above their weight. Musicians from David Bowie to Jarvis Cocker have revolutionised their industry, while great British designs, such as the Mini, the telephone box and Doc Martens, have become global trademarks. Other examples – the first pocket calculator and the Spitfire, for example – have made design history. Many of our most eminent artists graduated from the country’s leading design institutions – Central St Martins and the Royal College to name but two – which are suffering disproportionately from education cuts.
Dick Powell, co-founder of SeymourPowell, which designed the first cordless kettle and the Lynx deodorant can, is a British graduate of the Royal College of Arts who is worried about the changes. With an annual turnover of £8.5m, he believes his company is part of a great tradition of British design: “We [Brits] rally against the status quo. Look at our creative industries like advertising that win loads of awards, our TV too, and our comedians. That’s down to an anarchic point of view that’s always measured with a degree of pragmatism. We’re not playing fairies with felt-tip pens; we’re an innovative people with great ideas.”
Despite having been at a private school, Powell says that the new fees might have put him off his degree at the RCA – which was grant funded at the time – and pushed him to study abroad. Although he believes it might be right to cut the quantity of arts graduates to increase quality, he fears the way the changes have been brought in may lead to a great loss of talent from the poorest communities: “By taking the process they [the government] have, they are throwing the innovation baby out with the education bath water, and I don’t think they even know it.”
Other artists and designers have spoken out in the same vein. Patrick Brill, better known by his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, has called on the government to “stop bashing culture”. Turner prizewinner Jeremy Deller and visual artist David Shrigley have criticised arts cuts, and many education experts worry the government is overly focusing on Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and asking creative students to pick up the bill. But not all students disagree with the changes. Despite richer colleagues in halls teasing him about having to shop at the supermarket and travel by bike to save money, Keynes believes culture is more of a barrier to arts than fees.
“Artists are risk takers, so if they really want to do it, they will,” he says. “Three thousand is a lot of money to pay to go to university anyway, so I can’t see nine making any difference. I think it’s more to do with your parents. Mine were just proud I wanted to go anywhere.”