Short term and shortchanged

December 3, 1999

Every time Christopher Frayling opens his mouth I am gobsmacked at the complacency of the Royal College of Art (Soapbox, THES, November 26). As an artist and educationist, I have been subjected to seven full-time contracts since 1992. A five-year contract would be a luxury, part-time or not.

Conflated in Frayling's article are two main issues: the institution's responsibility to its employees and the model of postgraduate teaching practice presented as good practice.

First, full-time lecturers receive many benefits. They are financially supported in research. They have access to the professional network of academic institutions that includes conference attendance and training. They have time to see projects develop. On a personal level, they have access to mortgages and pensions.

But lecturers on 0.5 contracts or less with yearly contracts have no such perks. Their research time is unpaid. Preparation of teaching materials is usually unpaid, taking up time that, in turn, squeezes their ability to undertake other forms of work as independent practitioners. They are particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of policy decisions to reduce teaching hours.

Second, Frayling's model of the practitioner-professor is fallacious in that it presupposes that many practices in the visual arts provide enough income to live on outside the support that art education institutions provide. Although there is a broad spectrum of practices available for artists and designers, earning one's living in the visual arts is notoriously underpaid and insecure. The idea that preparation for such a profession can be adequately taught just by bringing in individuals who teach by transmitting personal experience is inadequate, since the inconsistencies of the tacit belief system of the profession are transmitted to students without objective scrutiny, and therefore continue to be perpetuated.

How can space for such an objective scrutiny be created in the existing employment strategy and its concomitant teaching model? There is little space in the curriculum for disseminating impartial and generic information about the relationship of art and design practices to the institutional infrastructure of the profession and their function in the rest of society. Graduates still learn this the hard way when they leave college. Such information is already being produced by practitioners engaged in doctoral and post-doctoral scholarship, researching the problematics in the profession with findings grounded in the experience of professional practice. But for students to benefit from this information and thus be better prepared for their chosen profession, those with such knowledge, trained in research, need to be integrated into higher education as teachers. Such scholarship needs the support of full-time, long-term contracts to develop and deliver teaching methods.

But right now, there is no room in the cosy world of the RCA for those arts practitioners. If universities across Britain look to the RCA's employment strategy as a vindication of their methods of delivering postgraduate arts education, then they will continue to fail staff and students.

Susannah Silver MA (RCA), PhD, artist, researcher, writer, teacher, London SW4

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