The Vampire Art Schools

“The Vampire Art Schools”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 75, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Someone said once (probably Adam Smith) that teachers should be paid after the lecture. Based on the recent National Student Survey, “academic artists” employed at some arts schools would be hard pressed to pay their rent.

Of the 154 institutions in Britain ranked on student assessment of lecturer performance (the quality of their teaching), the bottom three are arts schools:

  • 152: Glasgow School of Art

  • 153: University for the Creative Arts

  • 154: University of the Arts London.

These universities are like publicly funded vampires, sucking the taxpayers’ blood, at great expense yet failing to deliver in ways that students value.

The Glasgow School of Arts styles itself as “internationally recognised as one of Europe’s foremost university-level institutions for creative education and research” and a “creative hothouse” on its website. GSA received taxpayers funding of £7.5 million for teaching and £1.5 million for “research excellence”. Their website says: “the GSA was ranked as the second largest art and design research community in the UK, with 25% of our research considered to be world leading and a further 25% internationally recognised”. 1900 students are enrolled, and there are 400 staff.

The University for the Creative Arts is spread across the South East. This institution’s 2010/11 “recurrent grant” (a.k.a. taxpayers’ money) of about £24 million, with £1.5 million for “teaching enhancement and student success”. This institution is the merger of smaller institutions and enrols 6500 students. Their website cites teaching performance studies from 2005 as evidence of the quality of their education and lists alumni such as Emin.

The University for the Arts London’s website says: “The combination of a varied student group, cutting-edge research and highly-experienced staff creates a unique, multifaceted learning experience for students at the University.” This institution’s funding is almost £52 million, with £6.5 million for research. It got £3.5 million for “teaching enhancement”. The university enrols 20,000 students, and has 1228 teaching staff.

Blissfully, these three institutions didn’t get all that much research funding, sparing us more tiresome academic art. To be fair, though, useful art research does exist, but generally it is middling on the research rankings. And yes some of the academic staff may be very good at what they do in terms of being creative, having insight into art history, and generally conducting studies that inform our appreciation of visual culture.

An informal internet survey produced observations such as whether some of the academic staff would be likely to earn a living selling their art if they didn’t have these publicly funded jobs or that students and lecturers can have strong differences of opinion over the quality of their own art-making and may downgrade academics on that basis. This is a no-win situation with only victims on both sides.

Since the 1980s, Higher Education has reduced the choices on offer for learners, creating a large and dysfunctional university system, mixing excellent universities and some little better than a 2-year college. Learners get drawn into this big lie, thinking being a university is an imprimatur of excellence, but some of the best US institutions don’t even have university in their name: MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic. The arts world has fallen for this lie. What these three art schools exemplify is how weak institutions free-ride on the university ethos; the effect is to attract second-tier academic talent and third-tier students. The problem is we don’t really know which is which although this survey is a clue.

We need to distinguish between art scholarship such as art history, from simply art-making and you don’t need to go to university to learn to do the latter; the whole arts curriculum is confused.

I would relegate the majority of art schools to college status, and strip them of degree granting power. Their mission would be to offer to the many learners (including the late blooming artists of which there are many) opportunities that the universities have abysmally failed to create. Students wanting art scholarship programmes would focus on that, and if they want studios, well, find space at home. As for graduate ‘art shows’, well, don’t get me started.

As Groucho Marx might have said, I wouldn’t want to attend an art school that would admit me. Perhaps we should think again how we want to nurture and develop creativity in our society. As far as I can see, the current system is broken.

Leave a Reply