First published on November 2011.
Over the course of successive governments, education in the UK has been debated in terms which, deliberately or not, have reduced it to the realm of the economic and functional. Why should you do well at school? To win a place at a good university. And why should you go to university? To get a good job and earn a good salary.
Most of us instinctively know that the significance and influence of education and learning is far broader. And that is particularly true in the case of the great British arts schools which underpin and feed the creative life of this country. A creative education ‘teaches you how to use your mind’, as University of the Arts London alumnus Jarvis Cocker recently told our latest cohort of graduating students. Describing the ongoing influence of his time at Central Saint Martins, he added: ‘Still, 20-odd years later, at least two or three times a week there’ll be an idea that is linked back to that time.’
It is both the blessing and the curse of a creative education that it does not fit neatly into quantifiable boxes. UK arts schools are renowned worldwide because our approach is uniquely rigorous and challenging. Our successes are everywhere, from Turner Prize short lists and London Fashion Week to our homes and day to day lives; when you use an iPhone or switch on a Dyson, you are benefiting from the practical imaginations of creative graduates.
However, creativity cannot be predicted or prescribed. I can categorically promise you that today’s arts and design students will be as revolutionary and as innovative as their predecessors, that they will shape the way we experience the world and that they will more than repay the relatively small (and dwindling) levels of public funding invested in their learning. But I cannot tell you how and I cannot tell you when.
And that’s a problem when universities have to justify their existence according to the bottom line. Of course, governments must regulate universities. However, the current focus on the employability and earning potential of graduates ignores the immense wider benefits of education and misses the whole point of why most students study arts and design in the first place.
The creative sector is crucial to the economy, and our graduates can and do forge successful and prosperous careers in large numbers. But money is not the primary motivator for the majority of students on our campuses. Its use as a key indicator of educational success is worrying and inevitably disadvantages creative disciplines.
Already we can see the downgrading of creative subjects earlier on in the education system. The arts do not count at all towards the new English Baccalaureate certificate, causing provision to be cut back in four out of ten secondary schools, according to one recent survey. The erroneous view that the arts are nice but not essential puts them at real risk as both time and money in schools come under pressure.
That is a real tragedy. Arts subjects are a lifeline for young people who do not excel in traditional academic disciplines but have strong creative abilities, and provide a route to success for those who would otherwise be left behind. We must build into our education system a wider recognition that there are multiple kinds of intelligence and multiple definitions of success.
The arts, no less than maths and English, are central to how we think, understand and communicate, and they deserve to be a core part of the curriculum.
I strongly oppose the withdrawal of public funding from universities and the subsequent rise in tuition fees. However, one beneficial side effect may be that universities will have to become much more flexible about how they offer learning.
Given the costs they will incur, many students will want to work while they study or take a break part-way through to focus on paying off part of their debt. They will expect universities to respond to their need to learn how and when it is convenient for them, whether that’s part time, evenings, remotely or intensively. That is going to change what we think of as the traditional university experience – three or four years on a campus, after which education ends and careers begin. Instead learning – and creative learning in particular – can become an ongoing opportunity for a much broader range of people, feasibly available at every stage of life.
That is something to be welcomed.
Our main priority must be to challenge the idea that the arts are marginal, obscure or of interest only to the few. In fact, they are crucial to our ability to think, explore and examine, to our sense of wellbeing and enrichment, and to our economic prosperity.
Exactly the same is true of the arts schools that underpin the UK’s creative life with their uniquely challenging approach to education. They are vital to this country’s future and must be treasured.
Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/