No place for hip hop in art school

Study detects bias against working-class and ethnic-minority students. Melanie Newman writes

October 15, 2009

An "institutionalised notion of a highly idealised student" is being blamed for a bias against art and design applicants from ethnic-minority and working-class backgrounds.

According to a report funded by the National Arts Learning Network (NALN), a group of 19 arts institutions, "the art and design academy has a deeply embedded, institutionalised class and ethnically biased notion of a highly idealised student against whom they measure applicants".

The study, Art for a Few, due to be published in full on 19 October, was based on research by Penny Jane Burke, professor of education at Roehampton University, and Jackie McManus, head of widening participation at the University of the Arts London.

The team studied admission procedures and sat in on interviews at five art and design colleges. In one interview, tutors made notes about a black working-class candidate's "unfashionable clothes" on her assessment form. The woman, who was applying for a fashion design BA, was rejected and her interview cut short after she said she was influenced by hip hop and interested in designing sports tops. After the interview, the tutors agreed they would say her portfolio was weak as the reason for rejecting her.

"When the interviewers reviewed her portfolio before the interview took place, they had not deemed it weak," the report says.

The tutors recorded that the woman's clothes were unfashionable, although the researchers noted that white female candidates were dressed in similar clothing. The panel also suggested that the woman's intention to live at home while studying was a sign of immaturity.

The white middle-class male candidate interviewed immediately afterwards, who was "expensively dressed" and "cited famous contemporary artists", had "considerably poorer qualifications" and had failed GCSE art, yet was offered a place, the report adds.

Noting that black urban culture, in particular hip hop, "has contributed hugely to the arts", the researchers conclude that the woman had been rejected because she cited a form of fashion and influence "seen as invalid in the higher education context".

The admission tutors' judgments were shaped by "implicit, institutionalised, racialised perspectives of what counts as legitimate forms of experience and knowledge", it adds.

The report also notes that four of the institutions studied awarded places on degree courses to students already on foundation and diploma courses at the same institution before allowing external candidates to apply.

It says that this is "one of many hidden and inequitable systemic art and design admission practices", adding that most foundation students are white and middle class, whereas external candidates with BTEC national diplomas tend to be from ethnic-minority groups.

Mark Crawley, director of NALN, said the research presented some "extremely challenging findings for the sector".

About 14 per cent of students at NALN institutions were from minority-ethnic groups in 2007-08, and up to 33 per cent were from working-class backgrounds.

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