Unrecognised and unloved: Patrick Burgoyne on the state of creative education

Education is vital to the UK’s phenomenally successful creative industries. Yet its value to the country appears to be going unrecognised in the government’s plans

The David Mellor Bus Route. Photo: Patrick Burgoyne

Just outside the village of Hathersage in the Peak District, on the site of the old town gasworks, is the David Mellor factory, design museum and shop. The extraordinary Round Building houses the factory where Mellor devised an ingenious production system for making his much-coveted cutlery. The museum and its surroundings display the work Mellor produced in a career that spanned Sheffield workshops and a Sloane Square store – the latter bringing beautiful homeware to discerning, design-aware shoppers when it opened in 1969.

In the spaces between the buildings, visitors can discover Mellor’s influence on everyday street life in Britain – from bus shelters and postboxes, to streetlamps and benches. A traffic light takes centre stage in the museum itself (a 1966 design still in use today). It would be hard to find a better example of a designer’s ability to improve everyday life – from the rarefied to the mundane – than here.

On the frame of the bus shelter, which Mellor designed in 1959, is the David Mellor Bus Route. Set in order to resemble a typical route map, it charts Mellor’s career from Sheffield School of Art (Mellor attended classes there from age 11), to the RCA and his workshops, stores and factories, ending at the Round Building opposite. 

According to this government, the subjects that Mellor studied at university, the very building blocks of his career, are no longer a ‘strategic priority’

All along the way, Mellor’s work supported British manufacturing, adding value, raising quality and supporting highly skilled jobs in areas of the country where they were much needed. For a government that has declared its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ England’s northern towns and cities and its desire to secure skilled employment for the citizens of those places it characterises as ‘left behind’, you would think that Mellor’s career could provide something of a template for success. Here in Hathersage is a map of how British creativity can drive the economy and benefit us all. 

And yet, according to this government, the subjects that Mellor studied at university, the very building blocks of his career, are no longer a ‘strategic priority’. More than that, they are to be the subject of significant funding cuts, with the promise of more to come. The Mellors of the future, it seems, will find it that much harder to follow his route to success.

You may have heard about these proposals and the efforts of organisations such as the Campaign for the Arts to stop them. In January of this year, education secretary Gavin Williamson sent the Office for Students a letter setting out his guidance for teaching grant funding for 2021-22. In the letter, Williamson said he wanted the OfS to reprioritise this form of funding “towards … subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs”. Williamson went on to request that “the OfS should therefore reduce funding by 50% for high-cost subjects that do not support these priorities”. Ominously, he followed that by saying that “we would then potentially seek further reductions in future years”. A table listed which subjects were deemed worthy of TG funding: art and design subjects were not included. 

Our current government appears uniquely proud of its hostility towards – or at least wilful lack of understanding of – a creative economy

In the outcry that followed, the proposals have been characterised as a 50% cut in funding for art and design subjects at university. While what is proposed is still serious, it’s not that. As the OfS stresses in a statement on its website, universities and colleges will continue to receive the full tuition fee loan for students on these courses (up to £9,250).

“The proposed reduction relates to a much smaller subsidy that is currently provided by the OfS, designed to help universities and colleges deliver subjects that are expensive to teach,” it states. “For arts subjects, this subsidy currently works out at around £243 per full-time student per year. It is paid to universities and colleges, not given directly to students. Under the proposals, this subsidy would be reduced by 50% to £121.50 per student per year – equivalent to a reduction of around 1% of the combined tuition fee and OfS funding.”

So, not quite armageddon, but this isn’t happening in isolation. One of the senior academics I spoke to for this piece stressed that in his 30-year career, he couldn’t remember a time when each year’s budget was not predicted to be worse than the previous one. And this government is not unique in its hostility to creative subjects: as far back as 2003, Labour education secretary Charles Clarke was claiming that “universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change” and reportedly threatened a 99% cut in state funds for ‘unproductive’ forms of study. 

How self-defeating to declare subjects supporting a £111 billion a year industry in which the UK excels globally to be strategically unimportant

Nonetheless, our current government appears uniquely proud of its hostility towards – or at least wilful lack of understanding of – a creative economy that, as the Campaign for the Arts notes, is growing five times faster than the UK economy as a whole and generating over £111 billion a year. On top of Williamson’s threatened “further reductions” of funding, we may well see university fees linked to graduate earnings – a phenomenally crude measure of value that would be a disaster for future designers, illustrators, photographers, artists and musicians. In themselves, the cuts to TG funding may not be as disastrous as painted, but the real worry is that they are a harbinger of what is to come.

This is a government that is obsessed by its newly won ‘Red Wall’ constituencies. A rebalancing of the UK economy is long overdue, as is investment in skills and training for sectors of society that have suffered, let’s not forget, from the neglect of the very same party that now professes to have their interests at heart. But how patronising to imply that creative careers are not relevant for the young people it supposedly wants to assist. How self-defeating to declare subjects supporting a £111 billion a year industry in which the UK excels globally to be strategically unimportant.

Does this government truly not understand the value of design or of the creative industry at large? Or is it cynically playing to what it believes are the instincts of a certain type of voter who sees such subjects as design as artsy-fartsy nonsense? 

I suspect arts education is another victim of the culture war that Boris Johnson and his government seem determined to stir up as it poses as the friend of the ‘ordinary’ voter.

Through this most difficult year, art and design educators have demonstrated incredible resilience and resourcefulness. Arts education will never be the same

As they have done through decades of reduced income, the passionate, dedicated professionals in charge of our art and design courses will no doubt find ways to make do in the face of this hostility. Forward-thinking institutions such as Sheffield Hallam are taking care to add STEM-related disciplines such as coding to design courses to insulate them from funding cuts and most are committed to securing the best career outcomes for their graduates. Research partnerships with industry have been built, as has collaboration with other subject areas. Universities have been promoting their contribution to ‘placemaking’ (the elements that combine to make a city or area attractive and economically vital) and the wider civic value they bring.

The pandemic, furthermore, has accelerated changes in teaching and the use of space. Some leading design courses will no longer hold in-person lectures, instead using the freed-up space for more hands-on activities. Blended learning will be the new norm. Through this most difficult year, art and design educators have demonstrated incredible resilience and resourcefulness. Arts education will never be the same again.

What is baffling and frustrating is that the government shows no sign of recognising the opportunity it has been handed here: to supercharge the UK creative industry to drive the post-Covid recovery. To empower our world-leading designers and communicators to rise to the challenge of the climate emergency and reimagine the way we live our lives. To place creativity at the very heart of the Britain they claim to want to build.

What kind of message is it sending to those young people who have the potential to enrich today’s Britain in the way that David Mellor did?

In March this year, Singapore announced plans for a new university of the arts formed by an alliance between China’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts. South Korea is similarly investing in creative education, as, of course, is China. And with its New Bauhaus project, the EU has put design at the centre of delivering its economic recovery and climate change response. The very economies that the UK government so often holds up as models are committing themselves to creative education while the UK fights phony culture wars and obsesses about STEM. 

The government says it wants to improve access to higher education for the disadvantaged and to see improved outcomes for those in society who are not currently fulfilling their potential. But in its denigration of the value of creativity, what kind of message is it sending to those young people who have the potential to enrich today’s Britain in the way that David Mellor did? 

As the Mellor museum so wittily shows us, the journey to a brilliant creative career has many stops along the way, but it starts with education.

Patrick Burgoyne is a former editor of Creative Review and a member of the creative collective Urge; @patrickburgoyne

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes