Masters in the art of reinvention

August 14, 2008

The article "Artistic licence" (31 July) implies it is only recent digital developments that are "forcing" art and design courses to reinvent themselves. British art schools have constantly reinvented themselves, often in response to the worlds of employment.

The first British illustrators and graphic designers to make their names, and therefore the reputations of their fields, in the early part of the 20th century were graduates of fine art courses, since there were no British illustration or graphic design courses at that time.

Because of the success of these individuals and a growth of interest in these areas, courses were devised to teach these subjects. The same is true now. Art and design, particularly design, has always been very responsive to change, often leading the way in relating the worlds of study to the worlds of employment.

However, today there are factors affecting the potential of art and design to respond to current external pressures. The conceptual basis and focus on the individual that forms most contemporary British art and design education is in contrast to most current Asian art and design educational practice, which still focuses on the teaching and acquisition of skills.

Funds are tighter than ever. But is art and design expensive in its delivery or are other courses shortchanging their students on accommodation and access to staff?

If you believe that education is about students and what they desire and need to learn, rather than what staff want to teach, then change will always be necessary in a changing world and courses will need to be intelligently reinvented: retaining babies while dispensing with old bathwater.

The solution is not to maintain courses based around technologies, old or new, but to have resources available to all students, funded by the school or faculty. Base your courses around philosophies, not technologies.

The obsession with balancing the bottom line comes at the expense of the much talked-of student experience that it purports to serve. The increasing focus on business from senior managers who have no experience of real business, unlike many art and design academics who work in industry as well as academia, means the ship is being steered by people who know only how to drive cars.

Perhaps I am wrong and intelligent senior management is not in short supply in our universities; perhaps it is poor at expressing and communicating its understanding.

The alienation from their senior management that many academics experience encourages the latter to dig trenches and view all suggestions of change with suspicion. Sadly, not all art and design staff are lucky enough to have someone as knowledgeable and reasonable as Maureen Wayman for their pro vice-chancellor.

Christopher Sharrock, Stafford, Staffordshire.

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