As art and design courses continue under Covid's new rules, students query the value with only two days' access to college studios.
By Joe Bromley with illustrations by Zoom Rockman
Arts students watching universities open and carnage ensue are asking one question: will I have access to the facilities I thought I was paying for next term – and if not, will I be reimbursed?
Those returning to higher education this year have found a problematic bi-product; bouts of Coronavirus. The University of Glasgow had more than 500 students in self-isolation within a fortnight of starting, Manchester Met University has 1,700 students locked in halls with guarded doors, and Northumbria University claims to have 770 infected. Sky News reports more than 50 out of 130 UK universities have cases. Many are still to return.
Government guidance for universities has broadly been – fend for yourselves. Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities, has said institutions are “independent” and solely “responsible for the decisions they take in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.” They are “autonomous” in setting fees, but should ensure “they can continue to deliver courses which are fit for purpose.” It has left an air of confusion which has stagnated over summer, and is now coming to a head.
Many universities have opted for online-only, but for creative arts students this would mean exclusion from facilities that define their degrees. Most courses demand a set of specific equipment; for fine art, studio space; for fashion designers, industrial sewing machines; for graphics, computer software; for ceramics, kilns. Lessons and lectures can be managed digitally, but physical resources are often the bottom line on progress. “It’s like trying to do your driving lessons online” says Aly Mohamed, a filmmaking student at London College of Communication. “It just doesn’t work.”
Cartoons for The F Word’s October issue are drawn by the artist and satirist whose career rocketed at twelve when his comic strip, ‘Skanky Pidgeon’, was published in The Beano. At sixteen he became Private Eye’s youngest cartoonist, the satire-stronghold where he now, aged twenty, continues to contribute. Rockman is currently The Savoy’s artist in residence, and studies Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins.
The University of Arts London (UAL) has the most arts students in the UK, a total of around 18,000. Its six colleges are set to open on 19th October.
Jeremy Till, UAL’s Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of Central Saint Martins, says their plan is a “two days a week” system offering students limited college time to use facilities while controlling social distancing. “We cannot have it business as usual in terms of numbers”, Till says. Teaching will continue online, and a UAL Report and Trace system will ensure households and peers in contact with any confirmed cases isolate for two weeks.
“We have to be pragmatic about the likelihood of another lockdown”, says Till, who fears more complications. While for now two days acts as a bridge between normal learning, and fully digital, the threat of no university access remains. Higher management continue to look “at how, with the least disruption, we can shift into a more partial or completely online version.” The latter was used last term, but with no use of facilities, a proportion of students were dissatisfied. Some are asking for refunds.
“His concerns stretch to this year too. 'People are going to come thinking they’re getting two days a week, but it is likely there will be times they won’t even get that, which is wrong.'”
“I didn’t feel like I progressed last term” says Scarlet Thompson, who studies Jewellery at Central Saint Martins. “The projects they asked us to do were ideas based so we made models, but that was it. I think [UAL] did the best they could do in a difficult situation, but I’m worried about next year. The fees should be reduced because what I was paying nine grand for isn’t there anymore.”
At the forefront of these complaints was ‘Pause or Pay’. The campaign, which started in March and grew to a national scale, demands partial refunds for having no access last term and the option of pausing study until university amenities are fully available. “We are here to articulate why studio based learning cannot be recreated online, and why we should not be expected to pay the same fees,” says Alessandro Marini, a founder of the campaign, and Fine Art student at Glasgow School of Art. His concerns stretch to this year too. “People are going to come thinking they’re getting two days a week, but it is likely there will be times they won’t even get that, which is wrong.”
The campaign has been unsuccessful. “UAL’s official response was that they didn’t have the resources to be able to refund students”, says Dylan Wilson, UAL’s Student Union Education Officer. Till says “Pause or Pay came at the same time as government advice saying not to pause and not to pay”. He continues: “I’m not disputing that students don’t get access to facilities, and you might say if they don’t get access then there should be some form of recompense … but what the students showed [last term] was that there are forms of making which are more adaptable, more hybrid, more everyday.”
The ability to make-do last term was impressive, but although students kept busy, concerns over actual improvement in their courses stands. To an extent, Till agrees: “The continuation of a non-making tradition in certain fields is problematic … how we work through those problems, I think we are still thinking about.”
"So, if there is a second lockdown and physical facilities close, will some courses have to stop, or students be reimbursed? “No”, says Till."
So, if there is a second lockdown and physical facilities close, will some courses have to stop, or students be reimbursed? “No”, says Till. “It is wrong to say we must be saving money because the building is closed. We’ve had to shift resources around, to deliver online learning is more expensive”, citing extra resources, online moderators, and an injection into UAL’s hardship fund to support students in need; a £500,000 boost says the Student Union. Drop-outs are adding to the economic pressure, specifically international students who would pay £22,920 this year. “That’s our biggest jeopardy,” he says.
The crux of the issue is, then, without financial help the University would be unable to provide compensation in the future, even if it was deemed necessary.
“In the end it all comes down to the government, who sold out the universities and who sold out its students” says Gina Grünwald, a fashion design student at Central Saint Martins. “They’ve been completely unsupportive,” Till says of the government. “They are shoving it all onto us.” Grants, loans or cash packets look to be needed at some point in the future. Currently, Till says, “universities are very exposed.”
“The government has to bail out universities so we can have options”, Grünwald continues. But now, come October, students have very few. “You can’t choose; it’s take it or leave it, and if you leave, you leave your course and your education for good.” Fabulous, see you all there!