How much should arts unis be pushing purpose?

Do art and design universities have a responsibility to drive social purpose or is it a distraction for students? We hear from UAL’s chief social purpose officer Polly Mackenzie, designer Sana Iqbal, and LJMU programme leader Pete Thomas

“There is a kind of caricature, I guess, of the artist as isolated – egotistical, even. Exploring ideas to their pinnacle, but in splendid isolation,” says Polly Mackenzie. She joined the University of the Arts London (UAL) as its first chief social purpose officer six months ago, after a varied career that includes co-founding a mental health charity, setting up the Women’s Equality Party, and running the political think tank, Demos.

“I think that the increasing movement towards thinking of art as a form of activism, and as the artist as a citizen, is both exciting and important and part of a wider sense of purpose, I think, across the whole higher education sector, actually. That you can’t just ignore the impact you have in the world.”

Although ‘art as activism’ has been around since time immemorial, it has often manifested as protest, she says, rather than actionable measures. In her role, she is keen to understand “our responsibility to actually drive those values into our industries in particular, but also into politics, into governance, into local communities”.

Mackenzie says that there’s a clear appetite for social purpose within the student body at UAL. The popularity of new initiatives like the ‘swap shop’ at Central Saint Martins, where students can exchange materials, have been a strong indication of that. “I think that so much of the commitment to just stop contributing to a stuff economy that is addicted to overconsumption – the momentum for that comes from the students.”