Art and the Apparatus of Higher Education

By Rob Gawthrop

The gradual shift from social democracy to neoliberalism in the west since the 1980s has significantly affected the apparatus of higher education. University and college heads have shifted their priorities from developing knowledge through education and research for social benefit, to increasing the wealth of the institution (and their own salaries) through competing for student numbers and positions in league tables. Students are now entering university as consumers of education for employment 

The largely defensive positions taken during periods of cuts and so-called reforms were not supplanted by progressive reviews during periods of reinvestment and expansion (Gawthrop p37). The modernist pedagogic legacy of studio culture, and the separation of practical teaching from histories and theories continues to dominate art schools and yet the positive aspect that allowed long periods of self-directed practical enquiry have become less sustainable.

Undergraduate courses have become subjected to testing regimes, algorithmic marking schemes and league tables based on degree results, retention and employability. The effect of the changes of the educational apparatus on art is a shift from the heuristic, speculative and sensible towards the didactic, teleological and intelligible.

 In the UK in 1998 the New Labour government funded the expansion of higher education with the introduction of top-up fees and student loans. ‘participation in higher education increased from 19.3% in 1990 to 33% in 2000.’ (Bolton 2012). The Conservative-LibDem coalition government’s 2017 HE Act raised student fees to full cost. A metric based scheme will place universities in a league table that will affect the fees that universities can charge. If recruitment targets are thirty students short for example,  a £1m (around Au$1.7m)  deficit over three years would result. Neither loans nor grants were available for masters course until last year though some studentships for research degrees have been available since the mid-nineties. The development of research culture and practice-based PhDs is mainly advantageous, enabling staff to legitimately continue with their practice with institutional funding. The disadvantages are that research has to conform to institutional agendas which are increasingly finance driven and that art as research can often be academic, illustrative or literal.   Undergraduate courses have become subjected to testing regimes, algorithmic marking schemes and league tables based on degree results, retention and employability.

The effect of the changes of the educational apparatus on art is a shift from the heuristic, speculative and sensible towards the didactic, teleological and intelligible.  At undergraduate level ‘Instead of managing the transition to adulthood, universities seek to safeguard and protect the physical and emotional welfare of students, removing all element of social or educational risk. For some students this means they leave university as childlike as when they started’ (Williams p136). It is at post-graduate level that it becomes possible for a student to develop a practice but access is restricted to only those who can afford it. Although a return to social democracy could eventually restore a more accessible, democratic and egalitarian approach to higher education, the academic apparatus is likely to remain much the same.

Without . . . changes the trend will continue for students to make work that reproduces or has the appearance of saleable art without any real understanding or questioning of it.

For undergraduates, questions of independence, what art is, interdisciplinarity (particularly in relation to digital media,  music & sound, dance & choreography and theatre & performance) and how professional practice operates (employability) are central to the development of art education.  ‘… to study independently, set goals, manage workloads and meet deadlines; anticipate and accommodate change, and work within contexts of ambiguity, uncertainty and unfamiliarity’ (QAA p18) requires sustained periods of self-directed practical enquiry which under a fragmented structure can be difficult. However this can be achieved through semester length modules of self directed projects as professional practice including internships, international exchanges, exhibitions, site-specific or engaged practices, without institutional attendance. The consequent reduction in contact teaching and use of facilities during such periods could release hours and enable one-to-one tutorials of longer duration than presently possible. Lecture/seminar programmes concerned with how the art world works (alongside other curatorial, aesthetic, cultural and critical contexts) would inform students of the economic and political world they would be entering into. Studios, storage and social space would need to be made available according to need rather than providing identical and inferior spaces for all students. 

Without such changes the trend will continue for students to make work that reproduces or has the appearance of saleable art without any real understanding or questioning of it. Graduates are unlikely to have the critical skills for their personal and artistic development to be able to cope with the world they find themselves in. These approaches need to be implemented urgently.


References

Bolton, Paul 2012 Education: Historical statistics. House of Commons Library http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/22771/ accessed 13th September 2017

Gawthrop, Rob 2016 Politics Pedagogy Art in Allsopp R & Hiltbrunner M (Eds.) Performance Research Vol 21 No 6 On Radical Education.  London: Routledge

QAA (2017) Subject Benchmark Statement, Art & Design, Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/SBS-Art-and-Design-17.pdf accessed 13th September 2017

Williams, Joanna (2013) Consuming Higher Education, London: Bloomsbury.


Rob Gawthrop is an artist using noise, improvisation and moving image. Performances have included Humber Street Gallery Hull, Tate Modern and Newlyn Art Gallery, plus specific sites, independent spaces and festivals. Politics Practice Pedagogy Art published in Performance Research (Routledge) 2016, Thunder and Lightning  in Reverberations (Continuum) 2012. Coordinated School of Noises Falmouth 2010-14, co-director of Hull Art Lab 2004-6, Founder member of Hull Time Based Arts 1984-2003.  Currently associate lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University, previously coordinator of MA Fine Falmouth University to 2015,  Director of Art, Dartington College of Arts to 2009 and Head of Art, Hull to 2004.