Illustration: Tom Jay
What’s life really like on the frontline of creative education today? We asked a tutor at a leading UK university to reveal the pressures and stresses of academia in 2015
As LinkedIn congratulates me on racking up yet another academic year, it leads me to thinking about what’s changed during my decade in education. I came into it following an MA and years of running my own design company out of London. After lecturing part-time at a university in the north east of England, I’m now full-time at my second university (also not a ‘Russell Group’). I run year three, but having looked after both years one and two at some point, it’s evident that each group has its own particular concerns. With year one, it’s recruitment and retention (getting and keeping students); year two is the difficult second album – often problematic with angst-ridden students wondering what specialism they are, or starting to coast; meanwhile year three is industry-facing, with the employability agenda and this National Student Survey business coming into view. And with students now thought of as ‘customers’ it certainly is a business. These days, I’d say my ‘on the ground’ actual teaching time is at about 25% – with the rest being some sort of admin.
The NSS is loved and hated by university management and staff in equal measures. Essentially, it’s an independent survey that allows students to rate their university course experiences from ‘Assessment and Feedback’ to ‘Learning Resources’ and ‘Academic Support, Organisation and Management’. So-far-so-good for potential students but year on year it’s become an increasingly specific barometer for universities. There’s both a logistical problem – how to get students to actually fill the survey in – and a reputational one where, as a university, we can only hope that the outcome is favourable, without showing any bias.
One year our ‘Overall Satisfaction’ hit 100% – so straight away this became the recruitment policy (make sure it’s on your email signature). The next year we were in the 90s and management wanted answers as to why we’d dropped down the table. One aggrieved student can affect the whole picture – we then have to justify the reasons for the fall. But look at any university website and it will be chock-full of percentages. As we have recently welcomed a new vice chancellor, more changes are expected. In our monthly design section meeting, friends and colleagues rolled their eyes as it was revealed that the VC “loves his league tables”.
Earlier in the food chain the prioritising of league tables means that schools, colleges and academies are adopting a prescriptive approach. Out on recruitment visits I’ve witnessed students producing sketchbooks as directed by a tutor who wants to ensure that the work pleases their external examiner (who checks all the grades are correct to a level across the board). Tutors are worried they’ll receive a bad write-up.
This is unnatural behavior – and the loss of ‘personality’ means that the work all looks the same. ‘Un-training’ students to stop wasting time in a sketchbook happens frequently – and they’re losing their edge. On a daily basis students will sit arms folded, waiting for me to continue to instruct them even though they’ve been briefed and have a deadline looming. “What do I have to do to get a good grade?” some will say outright. What they want is a clear formula, obsessing not about the work but the number they will achieve. Fees have certainly meant that, for some, there’s an expectation that you can buy your degree and then also a job. School-isms continue long into university – preferring Google to the library, for instance, or a lack of ability to simply visualise. They want to play safe. Could it be it’s a digital/analogue issue? Online does encourage this populist trait. I’ve heard students say ‘well, my friend/aunty likes it’ during feedback sessions.
The year before the tuition fees came in, our recruitment skyrocketed – and we warned management that this was an anomaly. Yet the reward was an unrealistically high target the following year. More students should mean more healthy competition – universities can be more selective – but now we’re recruiting lower achievers, because the numbers are required. (Over 70% of our graduates headed into full-time design work within six months last year, which was bloody brilliant. But, we’ll be asked, what about the other 30%?) Staff already worry and work hard to ask questions but management still wants answers on paper rather than any kind of celebration. If students struggle with the demands of the course – a course that reflects industry, right? – then we have been told we’re making it too hard to pass or progress. Academics can decide a student isn’t good enough and shouldn’t be offered a place and this can be overturned by management to allow that student on the course. It raises ethical and moral questions.
And what about the work itself? Well, I’d say that portfolios at year one point of entry are much weaker and more random than ever. In my time in HE I’ve seen a decline, not only in quality (drawing, experimentation) and quantity, but also in the way portfolios are presented. Development and sketchbook work is on the slide and current students find process and experimentation either pointless and of little value, or simply too much hard work. Not all but the majority. No, research isn’t just Google, and yes, I have heard of Banksy and David Carson.
Part of the problem stems from what has happened to the Foundation course. This was one route used as a stepping-stone to university and a way for any student from any background to have the chance to proof, test, make mistakes and really experiment. With the erosion of these courses, we’re now trying to cover that ground in year one. Students need to have the time to make mistakes and take on challenges through studio-based learning – ‘doing’ is very important.
So what are the positives? Well, through working with the students my own practice has swung from illustration to typography, and this has been really interesting for me and, I hope, beneficial to them. Our students are heading into all manner of industry, both international and local. And the one good thing to have come out of the funding cuts over the years is staff and students having to be more creative and effective. Less university financial support for the year three students for D&AD New Blood, for example, means that they must become even more entrepreneurial – and they do a damn fine job. The fact that most of our graduates gain design employment after uni – while a few of our students have even been successful in national competitions – is testament to this.
Yet fundamental to the future is the need to make room for failure and mistakes. As any good designer knows, mistakes are vital to learning. For me, as an academic, while we’re still facing up to new challenges, it’s all of the experiences which come before university that need looking at first.
This article first appeared in CR’s August issue, which took Education as its theme. More here