Shows leave students in debt

June 27, 2003

Students in creative subjects are suffering financial stress to fund end-of-year degree shows that aim to secure them commissions and jobs.

Institutions provide varying levels of support for the shows. Although many colleges cover the cost of the venue, extras such as transport of work, or models in the case of fashion shows, tend to fall to students. The cost of materials to create the work for shows is usually considered part of course costs.

"It's a case of beg, borrow and steal," said Lucy Purdon, who is completing an undergraduate degree in film and video at the London Institute's College of Printing (see below).

Students told The THES that they borrowed money from their parents, took out additional student loans, added to debts by extending overdrafts and increasing spending on credit cards or took on extra jobs to help finance their end-of-year shows.

Although some students win sponsorship to help fund shows, many others are unable to find the time to go through the applications process.

But despite the costs, many students said the expense was worth it as the shows helped them make professional connections.

Even with the additional outlay, the cost to students of the degree show was usually a drop in the ocean compared with the total cost of degrees.

Students said they were prepared, psychologically if not financially, for this level of long-term debt.

Many graduates of creative programmes said, in the short-term at least, they were prepared to have two jobs: one in their chosen field and one that would cover the bills, if not the debts.

Deeply in the red but not feeling blue

• Helen Bradley, a womenswear designer at the London College of Fashion, estimated that she spent £5,000 on her degree show. The college provided the venue and producer, but she had to pay for materials, models and extras. Although she chose to pay for professional models for the catwalk rather than recruit friends, she said her overall expenses were not extravagant.

"I'm sure there are people who spent less, but equally there are people who spent double. It's just a question of where you put your money."

She saved some money by making the clothes herself rather than having them done professionally.

She also secured sponsorships. At the end of her second year, she wrote to businesses ranging from shoe manufacturers to car companies asking for financial backing in exchange for a thank you in the degree-show catalogue.

Her search won her professional hair and make-up stylists. Toni & Guy, who provided the hairstylists, also expressed interest in using her clothes for one of their shows.

Despite the sponsorship and summer earnings from temporary work, Ms Bradley said the show left her with £3,000 of debt on her credit-card and overdraft. She added that she was not worrying yet about the rest of the debt incurred from her degree, which included about £11,000 of student loans.

• Lucy Purdon, a film and video student, budgeted £4,000 to make the documentary that premiered at the London College of Printing's degree show. Her connections from work and previous film projects gave her sponsorships for film stock and free accommodation in Kenya, where the film was shot. These, combined with insider information about cheap flights to Nairobi, halved production costs. Ms Purdon said that learning how to patch the funds together was an important experience.

Nevertheless, Ms Purdon said that she and her team of three other students all went into debt to make the documentary. She quit a part-time job to concentrate on the film. She used her student loan to clear her credit card, swapping a short-term debt for a long-term one. She will waitress part time this summer to manage an overdraft of £2,000.

"To be honest, the debt doesn't worry me because it was worth it," she said. "I couldn't do what I'm doing now any other way."

• Sinta Tantra, who is studying for a bachelors in painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, said she expected her undergraduate debts to remain for years to come. She estimates her degree show expenses at £2,000.

Next year, she will begin a fully funded postgraduate programme at the Royal Academy.

Selling a painting at the show helped her recoup some of her costs. She also quit a part-time job to focus on making the work for the show, resulting in further debt. For a couple of months, she lived on money and food borrowed from her family, and sold her camera.

Ms Tantra chose not to chase sponsorship. Money might have been available, she said, but looking for it was so time-consuming that it could have distracted from creating the artwork. She also wanted to avoid attaching corporate names to her work, although the Slade funds its undergraduate show with corporate sponsorship. "I don't want to be part of someone's PR thing," she said.

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