Reflections on Education from the Frontlines

Royal College of Art lecturers challenge the business-first approach of British universities and their art departments

picket line outside RCA, London, 10 March 2020

picket line outside RCA, London, 10 March 2020

Deep into the strikes, on the home stretch – the full and final week – we know the statistics, the numbers, the disturbing breakdowns of figures and how they pan out for a small few at the top, while disadvantaging everyone else: staff and students. We know about the #1 ranked Royal College of Art, six years running now, with its 90% casualised staff, lowest London weighting, exodus of high-level academics, and damning rates of anxiety and stress among staff. We know about the big #2 ranked University of the Arts London consortium, with its more than 2,500 associate lecturers on zero-hour contracts, its love of outsourcing, and its abject treatment of cleaning staff. We know about gender pay inequality and the vast under-representation of BAME staff at every single higher education institution in the UK. We know about new pension arrangements that will ultimately leave many university staff more than £200,000 worse off. We know this significant number is still less than many vice chancellors make in one year. Each. We know about building empires and corporate lingo – ‘Evolving Goldsmiths!’ – ‘Generation RCA!’ – the erecting of shiny glass sepulchres and the valorising of starchitects and soaring atriums with no studio space but lots of mainstream flash flash flash. We know that bricks and mortar do not an education make, nor do ‘brands’ teach. We know that we are all worth more than this, that we want and need more than this. It is not a ‘convenient’ or ‘flexible’ lifestyle for creative workers, nor is it right for who and what they teach to be exploited and undervalued. We know, and we cannot say it enough: tell everyone.

What we do not yet know – but can guess and worry and loathe and rue – are the real long-term effects of the current state and practices of higher education on the wider sphere of arts and culture, on what it will be possible to make or think – or not – and the version of the world it will shape. From Black Mountain College to Hornsey College of Art, Bauhaus to Kala Bhavana, CalArts to Byam Shaw, the success and ingenuity of radical and experimental forms of art and design pedagogy are well known, even prized, art historically and institutionally (see Peter Suchin’s feature ‘An Experimental Education’, AM434). Central to all of these schools was a commitment to the knowledge that the conditions in which we work, make, learn and live determine how we are able to do these things. The structures in which we are embedded change what we think, indeed how we are able to think at all. What and how an artist makes reveals his, her, their relationship to society, and mounts opportunity for necessary critique and redress. To be an artist is to be a citizen, an inherently political position. Without the awareness, freedom and choice education should offer, the body politic ails. Within educational structures, openness, curiosity, experiment, freedom, discipline, generosity, engagement and equality breed the same. This is equally true of their insidious opposites.

Art does not sit easily in a university sector that increasingly serves business. Art is not a discipline in the conventional sense. It does not have distinct objects of study or singular methodologies or recognised research techniques. Art is made out of and represents the boundless multiplicity of society, consciousness, the material world. Universities are not for-profit companies. They are ‘exempt charities’, not registered with the charity commission, but nonetheless run for ‘public benefit’. There are no shareholders; there is no profit or growth imperative. This should release them from the corrosive practices of mainstream business, which places massive strains on material and social resources. Constitutionally speaking, universities do not need to increase student numbers to fund the building of more buildings to house higher student numbers to fund the building of more buildings to house higher student numbers to fund the building ...

Many colleges proudly tout their internationalism, how they throw their doors open to the many. This internationalism is rooted not in intellectual and cultural curiosity, but a desire to reach the largest possible market. This cynical internationalism is not a route to the diversity that the college declares as its aim. It appeals to and draws on a narrow band of class and economic demographics in richer countries only; a skewed and limited internationalism likewise reflected in the lack of diversity of home students. Through the imposition of international student quotas it also contributes to this lack. By chasing the market, the college doubles down on ethnicity, class and economic under-representation – at home and abroad. This can only perpetuate the similar problem of diversity in staffing, since today’s graduates are tomorrow’s lecturers.

When business models – already so rife with structural inequalities of every variety – begin to over-determine what and who can be taught, based on corporate metrics of success, worth and access, the heterogeneity of art and of art practitioners is threatened. When success becomes perceived in terms of grades and graduate salaries or prices of artworks or audience figures, non-metrical parameters that cannot be numerically represented are overlooked or discounted. And higher numbers are falsely prioritised: popular or commercially viable or mainstream or easily digestible art is valued over that which is marginal, non-commercial, specialist, difficult or even just different – unrecognisable to some. If an art school is to be truly excellent, it must support the full spectrum of practices and practitioners and reject the conservatism intrinsic to a profit-led notion of art production. Anything else is only a partial representation of and engagement with the field, and, as such, of the world in which we live – local, national, global.

That many of the above truths are cast by higher-education institutions as necessities rather than ideologies is at best a dissemblance and at worst an outright betrayal: a tragedy in the making, in an already largely elite and cloistered province of existence. As the great bell hooks wrote, ‘the classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility’. It is our duty, as well as our desire, to encourage pedagogical contexts as fields of possibility in which we work together, comrades alongside one another: to transgress and dismantle the damaging strictures imposed on art and education, and to find new forms and structures for the freedoms we so keenly lack. This is an urgent and collective practice, now more than ever.

We know this, too. We cannot say it enough: tell everyone.

Royal College of Art’s University and College Union members

Royal College of Art replies:

The National UCU strike ended last week. The College is committed to both respecting the strike and protecting learning and the student experience at the RCA throughout the course of this dispute.

Although this is a national dispute, the College is also committed to supporting an open and constructive dialogue with UCU throughout the strike and beyond. The College has regular scheduled meetings with the UCU and is listening to, and considering their requests carefully.

First published in Art Monthly 435: April 2020.

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