If fine arts and crafts seem locked in a perennial struggle to define themselves in the higher education spectrum, their problems are nothing compared to the identity crisis of embroidery.
Its traditional, domestic image is not matched in terms of the courses run by eight higher education institutions in England and Wales. But it continues to influence its status and the kind of students it attracts. For example, an estimated 95 per cent of undergraduate and postgraduate embroidery students are female, a gender balance which has changed little in 20 years.
The typical needlecraft-based public perception of embroidery belies the variety and range of work, including multimedia techniques, metalwork, rug-making and exhibition pieces using anything from teacups to snow.
Some institutions have changed the title of courses in an effort to reflect embroidery's true nature and discourage false notions. Loughborough College of Art and Design, for instance, which has run an embroidery degree for more than 20 years, has changed the course title to multimedia textiles. Others, such as Manchester Metropolitan University, have emphasised their long-standing association with the craft and commitment to research by validating a singularly titled degree "Embroidery" rather than a specialism under the general heading of "Textiles".
Cheryl Welsh, senior lecturer in embroidery at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, says: "Recent discussions about course titles are symptomatic of contrasting perceptions. Some embroidery specialists regard the word embroidery as a straitjacket that limits an experimentally wider approach, whereas other specialists are seeking to maximise the connections between current practice and the historical traditions."
There is a communication gap between people outside and inside embroidery education. Those outside perceive the subject in a narrow way, governed by traditional techniques and applications, whereas students and tutors within education stress the breadth of interpretation.
Computerisation is a source of conflict. For while most courses give students experience of new production techniques by providing computer-aided embroidery machines and setting up work placements, the textile industry appears to be more interested in employing computer programmers with little experience in design than embroidery graduates with a limited technical knowledge of computers.
Melanie Miller, a research assistant at Manchester Metropolitan University who has been investigating this trend, believes it could threaten creativity and diversity in embroidery unless better links can be established between higher education and the industry. "There is no reason why computers cannot be used creatively, but at the moment industry seems happier to undermine the creative process by failing to employ trained embroidery designers," she says.