British art schools: Class dismissed

The art schools that trained students from Tracey Emin to MIA are heavily targeted for cuts. What effect will that have on tomorrow's artists?

It's just after eight on a wet Wednesday evening, and a police van is hovering outside Sotheby's in London. Several dozen protesters are staging a mock auction beside the entrance. "Who wants our education system?" shouts a man dressed as a slick auctioneer. "Sold to the highest bidder!" Another protester stands in an empty picture frame held by two women in silver wigs. "Arts against cuts!" the crowd roars, as the two policemen come forward to move the auctioneer gently but firmly away.

This protest – mounted recently by art students, artists and anti-cuts activists – raised burning questions about the future of art education in the UK. What do the cuts to higher education funding, announced in the wake of an extensive review by the former BP chief Lord Browne, mean for art schools? Arts and humanities subjects will be particularly badly hit – Browne's review recommended replacing their teaching grants with higher student tutition fees, leading Paul Thompson, rector of London's Royal College of Art, to say that the government had "swung a sledgehammer" at arts teaching.

Art schools are the lifeblood of Britain's arts scene, training painters, sculptors and conceptual artists, many of whom, like Damien Hirst (who studied at Leeds College of Art, and London's Goldsmiths) and Tracey Emin (Maidstone Art College and the Royal College of Art), go on to have major international reputations. Others – from Keith Richards and the Clash to Malcolm McLaren, Franz Ferdinand and MIA – channel their artistic education into other areas, such as music. "The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp's most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there," says Jarvis Cocker, who famously studied film at Central St Martins in London. "But on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way."

"The great thing about art schools," says Patrick Brill, aka artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who studied at Reading University and Goldsmiths, "is that they're like the room Virginia Woolf talks about in A Room of One's Own. They give people the space to grow up and work out what art they want to make."

So what knock-on effects might these changes have on the artists of this country? Inside art schools, there's considerable anxiety. Of the four I contacted – Goldsmiths (part of the University of London); Chelsea College of Art and Design (part of London's University of the Arts); Cardiff School of Art and Design (part of the University of Wales Institute); and Leeds College of Art – only Chelsea was happy for me to visit. "Emotions are running high," explained Cardiff's dean, Professor Gaynor Kavanagh. University funding in Wales has been cut by 12%, and the school has already announced plans to scrap four undergraduate degrees (in interior architecture, media and visual culture, and two music technology courses) from next September, and to reduce student numbers from just under 1,400 to 1,000.

Chelsea have no plans to scrap courses or reduce numbers – yet. Nevertheless, dean David Garcia is concerned about the government's funding decisions. "I do think they fail to recognise two things," he says. "One, the importance of this sector to GDP, and to national wellbeing. And two, thinking that art courses are inexpensive to run. If our students are to continue to contribute to leading-edge art and design, we need the right kit – like looms and digital printers. And it is not cheap."

In one of the college's workshops, I watch these looms in action: a small group of third-year undergraduate textiles students are weaving deftly, sending multicoloured fabrics spilling from their machines. Their tutor, Lorna Bircham, has taught at Chelsea for 30 years. "Replacing equipment is a major issue," she says. "The old looms aren't really good enough – it takes a long time to learn on them – but new ones cost between £8,000 and £10,000. The other issue is time – this isn't a subject that can be taught en masse; it has to be one-to-one. Over the years I've taught here, I've seen student numbers creep up, while the staffing has decreased. I can't take a day off sick. I pedal harder and harder, but there will be a time when the chain will break."

Several of the textiles students tell me that their finances are similarly stretched. Like all English students, they currently pay £3,290 a year towards their tuition, but on top of that they have to find the money for all their materials and equipment. "There are lots of costs on top of the fees," says 21-year-old Nichola Schofield. "The other day, I spent £64 on six digital prints for a project. Every day, you have to make decisions – like if I make those prints, can I afford to eat tonight?"

Carey Ellis, 21, shows me a series of photographs she's taken of street graffiti, pinned to a board above her desk; she plans to turn these into fabric designs. She voices the warning – shared by many of the student protesters, some of whom picketed the Turner prize-giving last year – that a hike in tuition fees, whether to the £6,000 recommended by the government, or the maximum of £9,000, could put many students off going to university. (Chelsea, like other art schools, has not yet announced its fees for 2012-13, but a spokeswoman tells me that they are expecting to charge "in excess of £6,000".)

"If the fees go up," Ellis says, "it's going to stop a ridiculous number of people from coming. It's already affecting my own decisions about the future. I want to do an MA. I'd rather get more experience in the industry first, but if I delay going by a year, the fees will have gone up, and I won't be able to afford it."

In an adjacent building, a group of third-year graphic design students are hunched over their laptops, working on short films based around the Sky Arts logo, which they're planning to pitch to the channel. Craig Sharp, 21, shows me his film, in which the camera pans across a dense web of trees until settling on brass letters that spell the word "arts", embedded among glossy leaves.

"My parents discouraged me from going to art school," he tells me. "I pay for everything – fees, rent, food – with loans and grants, and the money I've earned doing freelance graphic design. If the fees had been as much [as £9,000], I would never have been able to come."

At the Sotheby's protest, I meet Deborah, an 18-year-old foundation-year student at Camberwell College of Arts. "I really think that if the fees were kicking in during 2011 and 2012, I would be on a different life path," she says. "My family are African, and they really disapprove of the idea of me getting into debt. I think if I went to them and said, 'This course is going to cost me £9,000 a year,' they would laugh."

The government recognises the possibility that less well-off students could be put off applying to university, and has a number of measures planned to address this – from maintenance grants and bursaries, to university-run schemes working with state schools in deprived areas. As under the current system, students won't have to pay fees upfront, but can take out loans which they will then begin to replay once they're earning more than £21,000 (admittedly, a wage which is a remote possibility for most artists). But in art schools, the issue is particuarly pertinent. Unlike mainstream academic institutions, they have always drawn in a high number of students from working-class backgrounds – from John Lennon to David Hockney. Of the undergraduates currently at the University of the Arts London, for instance, 92% are from state schools who can ill afford the estimated £36,000 of debt resulting from a three-year course.

So what will happen if poorer students are unable to afford to go to art school? Could a body of art students drawn predominantly from wealthy backgrounds actually lead to a change in the nature of the art we see produced? "The possible effect," says David Burrows, an artist and lecturer in fine art at the Slade, "is that the sort of art we will see being made will be narrower, a lot less interesting, and a lot less vital and relevant to people."

Bob and Roberta Smith takes this idea even further. "What you'll get," he tells me firmly, "is art made by the very wealthy for the very wealthy, becoming more and more disconnected from real culture. The question is, do we want a culture comprised solely of wealthy artists? Or do we want to see artists coming through like Emin and Hirst, who have an axe to grind? Isn't their art much more interesting than what's produced by the privileged few?"


Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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