The rector of the University of the Arts London says the UK must not allow a vocational focus to diminish the quality of its art and design education. Rebecca Attwood reports
Academic and intellectual skills are in danger of being undervalued in art and design, Sir Michael Bichard warned this week.
In an interview with The Times Higher , the rector of the University of the Arts London said there was a strong argument that art and design in the UK was entering a golden age.
But he warned that a creeping vocationalism in the creative industries could damage the discipline. He said: "Creative industries worldwide are increasingly important to national and international economies. There are signs that people are valuing vocationally based education more than they have done, and that is not before time.
"But my cautionary note is that we should not go from one end of the continuum to the other.
"The danger of that is that you turn out technicians when the success of the creative industry, particularly in the UK, derives from educating people to think conceptually and to challenge accepted norms."
Sir Michael was one of a number of art and design leaders who attended a five-day conference, organised by the Group for Learning in Art and Design, to examine the key challenges facing the sector.
Topics discussed included the results of the National Student Survey and whether art and design education is the preserve of the white middle class.
In his opening speech, Sir Michael described the sector's performance in the student survey as "with honourable exceptions... pretty lamentable".
He labelled leadership and management in higher education art and design "shallow" and stressed that the quality of creative arts teaching in schools needed to be improved and access widened.
Institutions should develop less western-centric curricula and establish a stronger presence overseas, he said. Enterprise and interdisciplinarity should be further encouraged and a "strong culture of self-critical appraisal" ought to be developed, he added.
Sir Michael told The Times Higher : "As with any area of higher education, maintaining quality of teaching and learning is a key challenge for staff, but we have more of a challenge regarding student experience if you believe the student survey."
He continued: "Is there some bias in the survey? Is it because we attract challenging students who are used to being robust in their criticism? I don't know.
"I think the important thing is not to waste time trying to disprove the findings but to ask questions about whether what we are offering is the best possible experience for our students."
He said of the art and design sector: "We are different. We are mostly small, vocationally biased institutions rooted in practice, where research work is still developing - ten years ago people argued whether there was such a thing as research in art and design. But difference must never be used as an excuse for less quality."
For Alan Cummings, pro rector and director of academic development at the Royal College of Art, a key challenge is coping with the varied and often conflicting pressures on teaching in art and design. He said:
"Increasingly, we expect staff to fill a multiplicity of roles, not only as artists, designers and teachers but also as administrators, researchers, entrepreneurs, fundraisers and counsellors to students who are themselves under more pressure than ever before."
Linda Drew, acting head of Chelsea College of Art and Design, believes that students' satisfaction could be improved if more was done to prepare them for the university experience.
She said: "If students come to university to study English or history, they already have an effective toolkit - they usually know how to approach writing an essay and respond to teacher feedback.
"When they come into an art and design faculty or an art school, they often have no idea that the assessment approach involves peer review as well as tutor feedback."
Bernadette Blair, director of academic development and quality assurance in the faculty of art, design and architecture at Kingston University, said that there was now a new focus on the importance of art and design.
"Art and design has sometimes not really been at the centre of things - it can be seen as peripheral in academic circles. But now we have the Cox Review of Creativity in Business and the whole creative industry agenda.
Suddenly there is a focus on how we can, and do, contribute to the economic environment," she said.
Gareth Fisher, professor of sculpture at Dundee University, said:
"Increasingly creativity is a byword in politics and industry and business, and that's our ethos.
"There is a strong desire now to forge a higher level of debate with political thinkers and education authorities and to speak with a more unified voice.
"In Scotland, politicians are talking about the importance of creativity and the cultural industry.
"We have been given a lead by the Scottish Parliament's cultural policy to reinforce and increase our influence - not only on the commercial and industrial wellbeing of the country but also on the cultural awareness of the populace."
CREATIVITY IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS
A new centre will harness the creative power of art and design staff and students to help business find innovative ways to stay ahead of the pack.
The £1.8 million centre - based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, part of the University of the Arts London - will apply the inventiveness, research and development expertise of artists and designers to a range of business and social issues.
The centre, which is funded by the London Development Agency, will be called Central Saint Martins Innovation and will offer support to young creative start-ups, training courses on innovation, creativity and business, and research projects bringing together specialists from different disciplines.
Dani Salvadori, head of enterprise at Central Saint Martins Innovation, said: "We now have the facilities and infrastructure to make a difference, not just to our students butto all sorts of enterprises in the commercial and non-profit-making sectors."
Artists and designers are forging links with academics across higher education, resulting in some surprising interdisciplinary innovations.
Imperial Triangle Projects match up RCA graduates with scientific ideas from Imperial Innovations, Imperial's technology transfer branch, and the MBA expertise of Imperial's Tanaka Business School.
So far, projects have resulted in the development of instruments for keyhole surgery, a motion-tracking glove designed to help surgeons assess and improve their skills, and an earpiece that can monitor fitness through tiny computers the size of a pinhead.
Jeremy Myerson, professor of design studies at the RCA, said: "People do speak different languages, but we overcome this by working in small interdisciplinary teams."
Designer and RCA graduate Richard Hartshorn, of Goodwin Hartshorn, worked on developing the PortPlace, a device designed to improve the safety of keyhole surgery to the abdomen. The idea came from Herbert Anderson, a surgeon-in-training at Imperial.
Mr Hartshorn said: "Early on, it was almost our role to criticise the idea and 'train' the surgeon on the design process." But the roles reversed when Mr Hartshorn and his colleague Edward Goodwin observed a number of operations and learnt how to suture, practising on an electronic teaching device and a pig's liver.
"That level of understanding theory is key to the design process," he said.