The Blog

Does the UK University System Help Our Future Artists?

On starting a fine art degree five years ago, my head of course gave an introductory speech. She told us about her experience of art college, twenty five years previously. About passionate tutors making work amongst students, in one big arty, experimental studio love in...

On starting a fine art degree five years ago, my head of course gave an introductory speech. She told us about her experience of art college, twenty five years previously. About passionate tutors making work amongst students, in one big arty, experimental studio love in. She said things had changed a bit in recent years, that the new art school - now more aptly described as university - was very different, for good and bad, but that it would still be as exciting as possible. I started open minded, but these changes proved more evident and stifling as the three years went by.

It might be difficult to have any sympathy for art school kids if you've spent your pricey loan and three hard years grafting on an academic degree - many people respond to art degrees by saying they aren't 'real' degrees. But when taught properly, and sensitively to an individual's talents they have the power to create the people who truly enrich our cultural lives. After speaking to many fellow art graduates, I've found there are three points that come up again and again.

The first is that there's no free creation. There's a definite 'break you down to build you back up again aspect', that's also used at performance schools to prepare students for a tough creative world after uni, in which you won't survive too long if you don't have the strength of mind to stick up for your work. But, this is done to such an extent that many students end up playing it safe. Every new idea you come up with seems to be cut off at the source and there's little support to keep trying with it. With any creative subject it should be imperative that you push an idea to its very end, and to do this you need an environment that positively encourages.

Secondly, many students feel there is too much focus on theory, and not enough on technique. Our life drawing classes ended mere weeks into our degree, and from that point we received no technical training. While we had access to many different studios and facilities, without a tutor on hand to offer thorough teaching, UK students are unfortunately often blown out the water by their international counterparts. Theory is clearly an important area to understand so you can ground your work in a contextual and historical framework, but when theory outweighs technique to a point at which you feel your entire mark resides on your idea, there's an impossibility for talented artists to score well if they aren't also incredibly academic. Our theory classes were fantastic - they made me want to be an art writer - but an art degree shouldn't suit future writers more than it does future artists.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, is the fact that fine art courses now fit neatly into the UK university framework, of uninspiring term by term points scoring that goes no way towards reflecting the real working style of a professional artist. Very few artists will work to specific frameworks and time limits, and will instead get into a working style that constantly builds on ideas over months or years. We were repeatedly told by tutors to ignore our grades because they shouldn't be the main focus. But why have this system in place if even those teaching it don't feel it works? The main rationale for this change in the last couple of decades would appear to be funding benchmarks for secondary education. Courses struggle more and more for resources as the years go by, and instead of identifying art as a subject thoroughly varied in output and direction to other academic subjects, they get bundled into the same package. A classical and traditional art school approach may seem too loose for a Government to accept as a worthy three years of youth time, but it would inevitably harvest better results. And by results I don't mean the combination of numbers you receive at the end, I mean confident, rounded artists who are capable of independent study and in depth experimentation. As in any degree, art courses do attract their fair share of people who don't seem like they really want to be there, but testing them in this formatted manner doesn't necessarily cut out the lower echelons, it just means those that want to engage continue to receive grades they don't fully understand in a neatly filled out box.

So what's the answer? Fellow students who took an exchange year in Gent and Leipzig found the structures more traditional, and also more positive. Heather Firminger who took a year in Gent enjoyed that "European schools are far more structured. They still want to preserve craft. They have courses like glass blowing and ceramics". They offered a chance to develop skills. Another student who took a year in Leipzig mentioned that it's not a "perfect system but at least students were given actual control over their education, they are not marked once until 5 years into their degree" giving students the "freedom to 'explore' their own practice". I've visited Leipzig and far from putting students off working hard, a majority are already selling work and functioning as confident, rounded artists. Freedom could in fact be the thing that allows people to really work.

While art education gets pushed further and further into strict criteria and uninspiring focus away from nurturing practical and technical talent, friends are increasingly choosing to study outside of the UK. Both one on one tuition in less traditional art school settings abroad and schools similar to Leipzig that nurture practical skills and turn out more selling artists at BA level than any British art school I know of. We have an exceptional, and very distinctive art scene in London, and it would be a gigantic blunder to lose our future luminaries for a lack of inspiring system to engage with from school.

I would absolutely love to hear if anyone has had a different, more positive experience they would like to share.