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School Watch
February 2021

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

Aleks Stanek

Socially-distanced studios at Edinburgh College of Art. Photo: Lucas Priest.

Socially-distanced studios at Edinburgh College of Art. Photo: Lucas Priest.

Socially-distanced studios at Royal College of Art. Photo: Alex Beeston.

­­­­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 £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.

Kevin Biderman, a visiting lecturer and University and College Union representative at the Royal College of Art in London, agrees. “What the UCU strike of last year and the students’ opposition to how their education is being handled during the pandemic have in common is that they both arise out of the worst excesses of neoliberalism in universities.” In 2018, after a year of working at the RCA, his employment status was downgraded to an effectively zero-hour contract. “I used to view the RCA as the Sports Direct of higher education”—the British sportswear chain known for its poor working conditions and exploitative business practices—“but now a more apt comparison would be Amazon. The Royal College has really turned making a profit from the pandemic into an art.” Biderman’s words are backed by evidence: the institution’s 2019/2020 Annual Report, published January 26, shows a growth in the annual operating surplus by almost a million pounds compared to the previous academic year, when, with the exception of the last term in lockdown, teaching was largely studio based. [1]1
Royal College of Art, “RCA Annual Report 2019/20,” rca.ac.uk .

Since early 2018, Biderman has been chairing the RCA union branch, where he is now cochair. He was on the picket lines during the faculty’s industrial action and watched them wane as the last of its fourteen days coincided with the rising transmission of Covid-19. As campuses closed ahead of the first lockdown in late March, tutors who demonstrated in the February cold transitioned to teaching practice-led degrees from home, hoping their message—one of valuing art education and its staff—would be heard. Four months later, the ruling Conservative party announced a £1.57 billion injection into the commercial art and culture sector encompassing galleries and museums. [2]2
Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, “£1.57 Billion Investment to Protect Britain’s World-Class Cultural, Arts and Heritage Institutions,” gov.uk, July 5, 2020 .
The investment attracted ample media attention, though not for the reasons the Department for Culture may have hoped: the Tate decided to use its allocated £7 million to boost senior salaries rather than furlough its lowest-paid workers, leading to the forced redundancy of over three hundred jobs, and sparking forty-two days of strike action. [3]3
Chris Sharratt, “Why Tate Staff Are on Strike,” Frieze, August 26, 2020 .
Earlier in the spring, the government rejected a higher education bailout, citing the “amazing quality” of online education and giving universities the green light to charge full fees. [4]4
Richard Adams, “Government Refuses Multi-billion Pound Bailout for Universities,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020 .
Following public criticism of the government’s directive that universities apply for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans, the Treasury brought forward £2.6 billion in autumn term tuition fee payments as part of a higher education financial relief package. UCU described the strategy as “kicking the can down the road” and lacking in “protection or stability that students, staff, and the communities they serve so desperately need.” [5]5
Ibid.

The package carries just enough funds to suspend the sector in a state of managed crisis and not a pound more. It includes £70 million collated by the Ministry for Education and the Office for Students, an independent regulator of higher education, distributed directly to universities for mental health services and financial hardship funds. Despite the government’s assurances that the measures form the best strategy to deliver timely relief to students in need, the allocation has been criticized by student campaign groups as a circular economy encouraging financial brinkmanship.

Socially-distanced studios at Royal College of Art. Photo: Alex Beeston.

“Many of us wouldn’t need the hardship funds if the university lowered our rent by the requested 30 percent,” says Georgia, an undergraduate behind the London-based UAL Rent Strike. The institution, which comanages the halls with a private landlord, has quoted tenancy clauses to avoid rebates even as some of its students have been unable to return to university accommodations following the government’s overnight announcement of a lockdown from January 4 to March 8, with a possibility of an extension. [6]6
In the last academic year, students spent £1 billion on unused accommodation. See .
The materials and degree work left behind in their rooms [7]7
UAL Halls, “Tips on Setting Up Your Workstation at Home,” January 11, 2021, hallslife.arts.ac.uk .
(currently used as makeshift workspaces after the closure of the halls’ common study areas [8]8
UAL Halls, “How to Work Safely in Halls,” January 11, 2021, hallslife.arts.ac.uk .
) place them in a double bind: unable to collect their belongings and move out but unwilling to pay rent for an unused room. Georgia notes that most of the aid will be reabsorbed by student loan companies or the university—with funds supplementing rent, fees, and material costs or covering living costs after paying for the former—and that even the more generous relief payments still amount to less than the rent rebate would. In recent months, UAL’s appointment of former culture secretary James Purnell to vice chancellor has embittered students further; Purnell is notorious for his involvement in the 2009 expenses scandal in which members of parliament used public money to make personal luxury purchases.

Unlike the furlough—the government scheme remunerating 80 percent of wages to employees unable to carry on their work due to Covid—access to the hardship fund isn’t guaranteed, and not every student has the capacity to undergo the arduous application process, or the appeal if the application is unsuccessful. With the loss of typical part-time student employment, some of Georgia’s peers have been turning to food delivery apps or sex work to make ends meet. Her final observation points to the impetus behind the Treasury’s financial package: “Without the hardship funds, many students would drop out of education altogether, crashing the sector, and the government can’t afford that any more than, as they claim, the bailout.”

Students past the point of being helped by the hardship fund have resigned to take a leave of absence, delaying their degrees into the unknown future as an increasing number of universities struggle to guarantee dates of reentry. In line with a Ministry for Education directive to counter the loss of income from fees, student recruitment has grown despite an all-time high of one in five students opting for planned deferrals. [9]9
Richard Adams, “UK Universities Facing £760m Hit as One in Five Students Plan to Defer,” The Guardian, May 20, 2020 .
The eventual reenrollment of deferred students into the ballooning student body spells disaster for faculty, students, and staff already overworked in the era of online education. At Goldsmiths, University of London, UCU-affiliated lecturers have been carrying out an Action Short of a Strike since early February, employing an organized grading boycott to demand safe and manageable workloads from senior management. [10]10
GUCU Branch Officers, “GUCU Letter to Goldsmiths Students About Our Action,” goldsmithsucu.org, January 20, 2021 .
The action additionally opposes the dismissal of staff during the pandemic. In a letter to students, Goldsmiths’ UCU members write: “Once staff are made redundant, they will not be replaced. Once programs are closed, they will be lost for many years or even forever.” [11]11
Ibid.
Their words are a stark reminder of an even starker reality awaiting staff and students upon their return to campus if the decline of teaching and learning conditions continues and the majority of public university funding, already up to 80 percent annually, derives from tuition. [12]12
HESA, “HE Finance Plus 2016/2017,” 2018.

Syahadah, a UAL undergrad behind the formation of Pause or Pay UK in April, takes pride in the political messaging of the students associated with the pressure group, noting that while some student-led campaigns center consumer rights, Pause or Pay UK has prioritized solidarity with staff from the beginning. The campaign has pushed for special deferral regulations for studio-based learners, as well as government-funded fee rebates under the condition that staff contracts are protected. The group was instrumental to the RCA fee strike last year: “Our actions helped prevent the deportation of fifty international students who were threatened with being reported to the Home Office as a result of withholding their final payment, which is a testament to what can happen if we mobilize.” Syahadah has been equally involved in supporting this year’s fee strike at the college, which began in January. The increasing coordination of strike demands nationwide, coupled with some promising developments in higher education since the beginning of the pandemic, make Syahadah cautiously optimistic that the extended university crisis is coming to a head, with fee refunds and rebates as the inevitable result.

At UCU’s RCA branch, Kevin is more pessimistic about the prospects of a bailout, stating, “Ours is a government which favors plunging millions of families into poverty over a one-off wealth tax.” He is referring to Parliament’s vote to cut the extra £20 a week that the government had been providing to the lowest-earning families during the pandemic—a vote that coincided with chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak rejecting a 5 percent tax on households earning over £1 million. [13]13
“Universal Credit: MPs Urge PM to Keep £20 Benefit ‘Lifeline,’” BBC News, January 18, 2021 . Sonia Rach, “Chancellor Rishi Sunak Rejects Wealth Tax Hike,” Money Marketing, January 19, 2021 .
(At the time of this decision, Sunak’s own net worth was estimated by British tabloids to be £200 million.) The college community’s impassioned response to the RCA’s rise in surplus cash flow needs to therefore be situated in the context of drastic wealth disparities exacerbated by Covid-19, which few understand as viscerally as Alex, who went from experiencing homelessness a few years ago to enrolling in the MA print program at the top-ranked school for art and design education. [14]14
For art school rankings see .
“The motivation behind my degree at the RCA was escaping poverty, getting out of the council estate,” he says. “Aside from networking, I had hoped I’d be able to use the college facilities to make some pieces I could sell to help me get by financially during my studies. None of this is going according to plan at the minute.”

Kevin says, “Students are being told that if they don’t pay their fees, senior management won’t be able to keep us lecturers employed, and this divisive rhetoric is coming at a time of an income surplus. UCU members know how hard we had to negotiate just for our jobs to be retained during remote learning, even while they were in profit. We also saw this divide-and-conquer technique used during last year’s industrial action, so we are all immune to it by now.” Kevin is a supporter of UCU’s Corona Contract, a campaign for two years of guaranteed employment for visiting lecturers. He believes an end to casualization schemes would stabilize the sector and help students get a better learning experience.

Due to their shared timelines, many of the rent and fee strikes will culminate in the coming weeks, with students facing suspensions and possibly even expulsions. And since institutions will not be able to fulfill the students’ demands, nothing short of a full-sector bailout will undo the disaster that has been remote practice-based art education in the UK. Like the 2008 bank rescue package authored by the New Labour government, Tory officials continue to prioritize institutions over the people they are intended to serve. Their package, however, does not constitute a bailout, and the institutions themselves are too close to a financial implosion for comfort. By withholding the money they give to universities, students are highlighting the dire financial straits of these institutions, which were crippled by government funding cuts well before the pandemic. The student strikes shine a light on the failures of a de facto for-profit higher education system. In yet another plot twist of a pandemic year that has seen the unthinkable happen—including a fiscally conservative government effectively introducing universal basic income—a generation of disillusioned students may save British universities by militantly agitating against them.

—Aleks Stanek

Aleks Stanek is an artist and writer whose work explores the limits of personal and political spaces. Her experience of migration informs her practice, which saw her run two hundred miles along a border line, pilot drones over the English Channel, and transport a wall to a cliffside. Her work has been covered by Deutsche Welle and It’s Nice That. She is a Students’ Union Co-President at the Royal College of Art, London, where she completed an MA in Sculpture.

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