Computer Arts (Issue 206) - Back to School

It’s back to school with a difference

It’s autumn. It’s that back to school feeling. Haircut – check. Shoes polished – check. New pencil case purchased – check. Uneasy feeling (nerves and excitement) in pit of stomach – check.

For thousands of students, up and down the land, returning to university for their 2nd or final year, it is business as usual. It’s back to school. For thousands of freshers embarking upon their first year in higher education – it is business unusual. As well as paying in blood, sweat and tears to get through a 3-year course, it will also mean paying in hard cash - to the tune of up to £27K for a 3-year degree.

This autumn, the very first £9K per annum students arrive at our universities. So, fees have been around for a few years now – nothing new you might suggest, but this year a substantial increase in fees from £3.5K to £9K is a game-changer for today’s students (tomorrow’s graduates) and for universities looking to recruit in a year where applications through UCAS (the University and College Admissions Service) in 2012 have been down overall by 7.7%, and to the arts specifically a worrying 17.2%, these are tough times.

If you’re spending substantially more, £27K in total for your design / media education, what might you expect that’s substantially different from those students paying substantially less and still at university studying in years 2 and 3? A quick Twitter request out to my followers, not exactly scientific research I’ll admit, threw back some interesting one-liners. ‘I want to see three times improved service’ tweeted one, ‘I struggle to see how any student is going to see a 300% improvement in tuition and facilities’ tweeted another. Is that because a university education won’t improve by 300% or because universities can’t deliver a 300% better service, I wonder? – 300% is a massive increase! ‘You learn more from working and surrounding yourself with professionals than you do at Uni’ one Tweeter announced, as another cited an annual £9K fee as ‘putting a lot of pressure on students’. A pressure to perform or a pressure to pay-back, I wonder?

There were many other responses, of course, but not a single follower recognised that funding directly to universities, despite the increase in fees, would remain relatively static, that the fee increase simply took the responsibility away from government and landed it fair (?) and square upon the student. Universities will be expected to provide an improved service, but won’t receive funding increases to enable this – the government has simply reduced the amount of funding it makes to universities in proportion to the funding now coming from the student.

But climbing down from my soapbox for a moment, it is clear to many that with the student funding, albeit not having to be paid back until blossoming into a graduate and earning over £21K, the most important aspect to university study will be in the preparation for graduation straight into employment. Followers agree with this notion – ‘courses should include a year in industry’, tweeted one, and ‘a shift to more vocational curriculum is needed’ tweeted another.

Links with industry are critical admittedly, and having an in depth working knowledge of life after university is vital, of course, but providing oven-ready graduates, seemingly only ready, willing and able to slip into the creative industries professionally prepared, at the expense of other aspects of the learning experience, will ultimately stall creativity in the UK, I believe.

The best graduates, and therefore the best future designers, don’t immediately fit. They are the square pegs, not even thinking of the round holes. They question, challenge, disturb, turn upside-down and inside-out current design thinking and practice and are the future mavericks that will succeed in determining the future shape of design in the UK.

It really is no accident that UK design (advertising, graphic, fashion, furniture, automotive, photographic, illustration… the list goes on) is amongst the best on the planet. It is down to a Great British art school tradition – as a place for experimentation, risk-taking, cross-fertilisation and pure and unadulterated creativity – all activities best nurtured in education away from the commercial constraints and the watchful and restrictive glare of industry.