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March 5, 2021

School Watch: No Access, No Fees: An Update on Art Education in the UK

Art & Education

Edinburgh College of Art. Photo: Lucas Priest.

Royal College of Art. Photo: Alex Beeston.

No Access, No Fees: An Update on Art Education in the UK
by Aleks Stanek

In May 2020, Art & Education published “Course Correction: The UCU Strike and Art Education in the UK.” The feature reported on teaching conditions in Britain’s top-tier art and design colleges and the strike by teaching staff that coincided with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This follow-up revisits some of the same institutions to explore austerity’s devastating consequences on art education and how the affected students are fighting back.

Joanne, a second-year master of arts student in contemporary art practice due to graduate this summer, has been realistic about the pandemic’s impact on her studies since they moved online. “Edinburgh College of Art is still planning something physical for our degree show, but by the same token, they were adamant that we will have returned to our studios by now just a few months ago. Last year’s show was entirely digital, which I don’t blame them for because it wasn’t their doing. After the 2008 financial crash we’ve been absorbed into the University of Edinburgh, and all of the decision-making around art and design programs has been top-down since.”

Like many art and design students in the United Kingdom, Joanne hasn’t set foot in a studio in nearly a year. In line with University of Edinburgh’s one-size-fits-all approach, the “No Detriment” policy introduced at the beginning of the pandemic to prevent students’ academic status being downgraded was not reinstated this academic year. A defensible position, she says, in the context of courses that adapted to online learning over the last ten months, but the quality of art and design education has largely not been consistent with its pre-pandemic standards, and students have suffered as a result. Recalling a course that failed to meet her expectations, Joanne said, “I think it’s a reflection of how much my mental health has deteriorated, because the blow to my self-esteem was so much greater than the situation warranted. I spent hours trying to pin-point what to fix, and my tutor just kept telling me that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the work, it could just be better.” But it’s difficult to find the recommended “room for improvement” working out of a spare bedroom and paying the full fee of almost GBP 14,000 to do so.

From lack of facilities to unprecedented social atomization, art and design students enrolled in British institutions have experienced immeasurable losses in the past few months. Now, by withholding tuition fees and rent, students like Joanne and her peers are demanding proportional compensation and solutions to structural issues that, while compounded by the pandemic, have haunted the sector since funding reforms in 2010 and the rising casualization of employment that led to the lecturer strikes of February 2020.

Read the full text on School Watch.

School Watch presents critical perspectives on art education. Featured profiles and conversations survey programs in fine art, curating, critical theory, and other related disciplines, as well as the ideas and conditions that influence their practice.

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