Photo row hits RCA

June 7, 1996

A bitter dispute at the Royal College of Art prompted disruption of its photography show this week.

Last month six out of 11 students on the master of arts in photography course were either referred or failed. This was later reduced to two fails and two referrals. But all 11 students may withhold their work in protest.

The controversy focuses on the role of external examiner, Michael Collins. Mr Collins, former picture editor at the Daily Telegraph Magazine, has a BA in politics, but no relevant postgraduate qualifications.

The failed students all locate their photographic work firmly within a fine art tradition.

Last week Mr Collins said: "The course and the faculty are substandard. Traditionally the photography course rubber stamps MAs, which is disrespectful to individual students and perpetuates an inadequate MA."

Ori Girscht, president of the students' union and the students' appeals representative, said: "We need to look at the procedure and the interpretation of marks. The quality of these students is similar to those of previous years, and similar to others in the school of fine art. This is a dispute between academic staff and the external examiner whereby the students suffer." The students' appeals are not likely to be heard before the show opens.

The students preferred to remain anonymous. One commented: "It's almost as bad a setback to be referred as failed. Usually you get picked up on well before the finals if you're not up to scratch." Another student added: "Very recently I was told I was absolutely on the right track. I've been up nights bringing my project to a conclusion, only to have it rejected - out of the blue."

External tutor Zelda Cheatle, of the Zelda Cheatle gallery, said: "It is grossly unfair that an external assessor can supersede two years' hard work by staff and students."

The show is crucial for students as a way of being seen by employers, gallery owners and even other academic institutions.

Only graduates may participate in the show, whose invite states that it is seen by "over 25,000 international visitors as a result of the reputation the Royal College has won for itself . . . because of its pre-eminent role in the education of fine artists".

The Royal College of Art declined to comment.

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