Jewellers in name only?

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Last week Robin Bell, a jeweller in the Vanilla Ink collective in Dundee wrote a provocative well argued post about the declining skills of jewellery graduates in the UK. After some discussion, I joined the fray. You can read the whole discussion here. This is not an academic discussion, so no links or references; if you want those I’m happy to provide. I confess: I was angry at first because I had been inaccurately represented, but writing this post was useful in developing a balanced view on the critical issue of where – not just jewellery – but design education is going.

I welcome the opportunity that Robin has given us to discuss a critical issue: what is the role and responsibility of an Art School in the early 21st century? Does it exist primarily to equip students with vocational skills, or does it have another role to play in our culture and economy?

Some contributions here have, perhaps necessarily, been anecdotal and personalised. Views were attributed to me, for example, which simply run counter to everything I have ever believed or expressed, but no matter. Anecdote and personalisation get discussions nowhere. I am interested in debating where art schools are going, and to do that we need to understand fully where they’ve come from and where they are now. If we don’t attempt to grapple with the economic imperatives and cultural politics of the Art School, then we cannot propose viable alternatives.

I am not writing this from a defensive position, so let me be clear from the start: Robin’s assessment is largely correct. I think it’s important for us to understand why this is the case, then to discuss how things can be different.

I believe in public education as the most vital resource we have. That is why I work in it. Some things we do for very good reasons. Some things we don’t do as well as we could for other reasons. I apologise for this being a long post, but a bit of disentangling is necessary.

Design Schools are one of those wonderful British Victorian inventions, proposed in Parliament in 1832 just before the abolition of slavery. Progressive ideas were clearly on a roll back then. Britain may have been the workshop of the world, but it was a workshop producing rubbish designs. Design Schools were established to provide the very specific skills needed by our new economy, and in every city they were tailored to the needs of local industry. In Stoke, the art school provided the model makers and pattern designers needed by the potters, in Birmingham it met the needs of the jewellery trade, in Sheffield it was metalwork and cutlery design, in Leeds it was weaving, knitwear and printed textiles. Art & Design Schools had a vital and highly focused function: to provide vocational skills training.

In the twentieth century, this role necessarily began to change. The rise of youth culture from the 50s meant that Art Schools became more of a creative environment for people who “didn’t fit” conventional education. They didn’t want vocational design skills or even become visual artists. So they set up The Beatles and The Clash instead. From our Art Schools arose a new culture.

When Art Schools dropped the old National Diploma in favour of honours degrees, then their role began a significant and profound change. Degrees are not about acquiring a vocational skills based training. Their function is to enable students to acquire and develop the skills of critical thinking and to apply this to knowledge within a given discipline. That is the very specific purpose. Now the discipline itself can be the location for professional and vocational practices, but expertise in those practices is not acquired through studying the degree. For example, you would be ill advised (in all senses of the term) to seek professional medical help from a medical student. I used to hang out with a fair few of them, and frankly they would be pretty low down on my list of people to turn to. Similarly an individual completing their law degree would not be the first person I would consult about a thorny contractual dispute. The degree does not equip them with professional expertise, only disciplinary knowledge and broader intellectual skills that can be applied and refined within a professional context. That is what degrees do.

The next big shift came in the late 80s and early 90s when we moved from an elite to a mass higher education system. Up to this time higher education was enjoyed only by the privileged few. And what a privilege it was! Those of us to enjoy it were actually paid by the government to be a student. Many art and design courses enjoyed student numbers in single figures, in some cases with staff numbers almost matching.

In 1981 there were 4,900 students on fine art degree courses in the UK. Twenty years later there were 14,000. From 2003 to 2010 the total number of art and design students rose by around a quarter to 173,825.

According to the Design Council, 185,000 people work in design in the UK. You don’t have to be a statistician to figure out that if around 25,000 students are graduating in design every year, and only 185,000 people in total work professionally as designers, then most of those 25,000 people will not work professionally as designers. Yes? Or did I miss a meeting? So this means that for the majority of our graduates an education based on vocational skills would be a profound waste of their time and money, which is why over the last two decades we have shifted the curriculum away (to some extent) from a skills focus.

Now, let’s consider something else. Let us for a moment assume that all those thousands of jewellery students graduating every year did so with fully rounded and comprehensive professional skills. Impossible of course, but let’s just assume it happened. What would the result be?

Almost certainly the result would be the total annihilation of craft based jewellery businesses in the UK. It’s a supply and demand thing. The data I’ve seen over a number of years indicates that as student numbers rise, in the absence of any barriers to entry within the craft economy, so incomes fall. We have seen precisely the same thing in the design consultancy sector. If you flooded the market with professionally trained jewellers then the competition would be so intense that prices would fall, and viability for anyone would be unsustainable.

But of course that won’t happen because of another development that we need to consider. All this growth in student numbers is what people wanted: they voted for it. It’s what I want. I see no value in a return to an elite system of higher education. None whatsoever. But they voted for something else too, in election after election from 1979: low taxes. The UK (including Scotland) votes time after time for a low tax economy. Now, what happens if you expand student numbers AND reduce taxes?

Well first you have to get money from elsewhere. Overseas students help to subsidise UK higher education. So thanks China for that. But only to a limited extent. So from the 80s began the slow inexorable privatisation of higher education. If taxpayers won’t fund it, then the students have to. That is why our students are in so much debt.

Allied to this we need to economise, change our methods and teach differently. Some of the methods we used in the past were frankly appalling and needed a total overhaul. Yes, years back students were at times assessed totally subjectively. That cannot happen now, nor should it ever again. The “sitting with Nelly” model of teaching may have worked when students just marginally outnumbered staff, but as a method it is no longer fit for purpose.

The module that two of my colleagues delivered recently to second year jewellery, textiles and interiors students getting them to design new services around mental health issues is exactly what we should be doing. At the core of the module was students’ material-based design thinking but applied in a different context. We want them to think as jewellers, but to apply that unique way of thinking to health care. So we have and we can continue to apply creative education to new highly relevant challenges and opportunities.

But the thing I have banged on about relentlessly for twenty years (and thanks to Crafts magazine for recently reprinting the piece I wrote for them on this back in the 90s) is the unique value of craft thinking, and the need to nurture and support this. Place it in new contexts, sure, but continue to champion its value as a source of knowledge, insight and value about our intimate relationship with the material world. This is the bit of our education that involves shiny and non-shiny objects.

It is also the bit of our education that is far less easy to do with less money. I enjoyed being the external examiner for the Jewellery Masters at Stockholm’s Konstfack. Great facilities, well resourced, good staffing, excellent quality of work. Also all the students, including those from overseas, paid no fees. Scandinavian countries consistently come out top in all global league tables on education and child care. They are high tax economies. If we want affordable, high quality, adaptable and convivial state provided higher education then tax payers have to pay for it. There is no alternative to that. But if they’re not prepared to, then we have to deliver it differently.

I have no idea what Art Schools will be like in 2025. All I know is that they will be totally different to how they are today.

I understand that London’s Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design will be awarding degrees in a year or so. They are one of a number of new private colleges and universities taking advantage of the new privatised climate in higher education. So, will Dundee have its own DC Thomson College of Graphic Arts? I would suggest there is a good probability of a private college in Dundee that will provide professionally focused degrees in creative disciplines, linked to a network of mentors and intern providers, and their graduates will be highly employable. Fees will be higher than English Universities but lower than in the US, so probably around £15,000 per year.

But let us imagine another model. Let’s carry on with the state provided Art School and acknowledge both its limitations (in terms of teaching professional expertise) and its strengths (research-focus and transferable skills). Professionally focused creative education is based primarily at a postgraduate level (as it generally has been in all disciplines) but this is delivered in a for more distributed way. Scotland’s University of Craft & Design is a virtual entity for the whole country. It stitches together craft and design businesses (who provide technical access to students), online delivery, community education providers and some existing University centres. You could, for example, be based in Vanilla Ink and do your jewellery masters, attending online courses from GSA, the odd seminar at DJCAD, and getting professional mentoring from people at Fleet Collective. This way the collective expertise of the creative economy is harnessed, valued and paid for!

We ALL have a stake in the future of creative education. It is being reformed and reshaped in front of our eyes. It is incumbent on all of us to provide positive, constructive ideas of the forms it could take in the years ahead. Let us acknowledge that Art Schools cannot do everything, and perhaps even should do less. Let us instead think of a new type of inclusive creative education embedded in communities and linked to positive ideas for changing the world around us. As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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