This year has seen an active debate about the present state, and the future prospects, of art and design education in the United Kingdom. Bucks New University has closed down their Furniture Design programmes, Falmouth University cancelled its course in Contemporary Crafts, the Design Products programme at the RCA is going through some major changes, and even Jonathan Ive has commented on the situation, deeming today’s design education ‘tragic’ in a talk at London’s Design Museum in November. The New Statesman published an article entitled ‘Is this the end of British art school?’, and the Crafts Council released a manifesto ‘to secure the future of crafts education’, which received the support of Grayson Perry, Sir Terence Conran and Edmund de Waal, to mention a few. These events, together with the rise of the tuition fees and the difficult economic situation cutting funding from culture and education in general, have generated a growing concern over the survival of the art school.
There are many voices in this debate, some of which are preoccupied with the disappearance of craft skills, and some with the inequality that the high cost of student fees has created. What remains clear is that the art school, as it is, faces major changes, and the strong reactions that this provokes are understandable, although the debate is hardly new. The artistic freedom and the creative spirit deemed characteristic within art and design schools, have made these institutions appear as if they were somehow separate from the rest of the world and its realities. The idea of an autonomous art school with its academic freedom and rebellious students refusing to obey the rules of the outside society, is misguided, since neither the existence, nor status, of art and design schools has ever been particularly stable (just look at what happened to HfG Ulm and Bauhaus). It is, in fact, much easier to challenge the need for an art school, than for a university or a polytechnic. The status of the art school is very much dependent on the general attitudes of the time, thus rendering it very susceptible, even vulnerable, to wider economic and political changes taking place within the broader society.
What is interesting about this year’s debate is the variety of voices and opinions about what an art school should be. Isabel Sutton, for instance, writing for the New Statesman, is worried about the high academic level of today’s art school, since it ‘used to be a place where the socially and intellectually marginal could distinguish themselves’, and also served as a haven ‘for students who, for whatever reason, had not found their niche in the traditional academic system’. Sutton is concerned that ‘once on the course, art students have to submit an increasing volume of written work, arguably a distraction from practical skills and craft.’ In my opinion, while the rise of fees and the inequality it creates is disheartening and unfair, the high academic level in art schools is crucial in taking the field forward and maintaining a high level of innovation and new research. The idea of the art school as a dumpster for misfits is quite outdated, if not completely untrue, and it is difficult to imagine that requiring students to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it might have any negative effects.
According to Jonathan Ive and Neil Austin, head of the course facing closure at Bucks New University, it is computers that are the distraction from craft and making. It does save money, space, and effort to sustain computer clusters rather than heavily-equipped workshops, but it is disconcerting how this line of development could, eventually, lead to very uniform way of studying in art and design schools. Deciding to completely shut down one of the leading undergraduate craft courses in the country seems very short-sighted and drastic, but blaming it on the computers is not completely thought-through either. It is needless to describe the importance of excellent computer skills in every field today, so there should be a way to satisfactorily fit both of these elements into art and design education. Moreover, it is quite old-fashioned to see computers and craft skills as opposites, when there are intriguing and inspiring examples of their combination around us all the time. Good communication between the schools and the industry might help find the balance, so that Jonathan Ive would not be compelled to say that designers ‘don’t know how to make stuff’.
Ultimately, this debate brings us back to some big questions about the meaning of art, design, and crafts, and the position they hold in society. Changes cannot be avoided, but they must not close the door to what is truly important. Sarah Teasley says it best in an interview related to the RCA’s 175th anniversary: ‘…design – and the arts – is not entirely rational. And that’s what makes it so strong – it’s the sideways jump, the creativity, the unobvious, the willingness to go out on a limb, make suggestions, speculate and then apply the answers. The magic of the arts and design is that you have to be more open and that this ability to be unsure gives it power.’ The most important thing, especially when facing major changes, is that the art school still keeps space and freedom for the speculative and the unknown. This space for experimenting, together with high-level academics and the never-ending need for art and design in this world, will sustain the art school’s existence, one way or another.
 http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/11/end-british-art-school  Ibid  http://www.dezeen.com/2014/11/13/design-education-tragic-says-jonathan-ive-apple/  http://www.rca.ac.uk/more/our-history/175th-anniversary/175th-anniversary-interview-series-part4/