For What It’s Worth: The Relevance of Art Education Today

As mentioned in the previous post, this blog will document our symposium, For What It’s Worth: The Relevance of Art Education Today. This day provided much of the basis of our work within Podium. Several of the questions asked and points raised throughout the day are ones we will continue to come back to and discuss.


The schedule for the symposium.

Starting off the day was Andrew McGettigan, a writer and researcher who has taught at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design as well as Westminster and Middlesex universities. Andrew presented us with a talk primarily based on facts surrounding the raised tuition fees, and how the government measured the ‘relevance’ of each degree course. We were surprised to learn from him that 34% of loans are currently not repaid, and that there is a huge gap between genders in loan repayments – it has been predicted that 54% of what is loaned to female students will not be repaid, whereas 87% of what men borrow is paid back. Fine art graduates are especially unlikely to repay their loans, and it would be interesting to see in the future how much of the £383,911.73 of our total would actually be returned to the government.

Andrew’s talk then lead to a panel discussion which also included Claire Harbottle, a former masters student and photography technician in the fine art department, along with Tina Richardson, who was completing a cultural studies PhD at Leeds and founded the Leeds Psychogeography Group. Both provided interesting insights into life at the university, Claire’s career path gave us an excellent example of how the cuts to universities had affected people, taking up an offer of voluntary redundancy in 2010 and deciding on a career as a midwife instead with her training being funded by an NHS bursary.

The second half of the day involved several speakers who provided examples of how higher education could be found outside of the traditional forms. First to speak were two members of the Free University of Liverpool, who presented their talk as if it was an interview or conversation between the two of them. The university was formed in 2011 after tuition fees were tripled, and work with the principle that education should be free to all and not a privilege for those who can afford it. It is run voluntarily by its staff and tutors and offers a course in BA Cultural Praxis and a foundation degree in Performance and Culture. The speakers talked about their so far short existence and uncertain future. The classes at the university are not necessarily taught by people who would be considered to be qualified by most universities, but are lead more like discussions in which all involved can learn. Many of the students involved are already connected to a university, often by either taking PhD’s or being lecturers, which raises the question of whether this institution would be able to work without more established universities, and if both organisations could successfully exist together.

Grace Harrison, who is also part of the Free University, talked next about her experiences of life during and after higher education. Harrison started the BA Fine Art course at Central St Martins in 2009, but left after just one year, when she had decided that life within this kind of institution did not suit her and that she could find experience of being an artist elsewhere. She described feeling disappointed whilst on the course with how little teaching there was, especially when compared with the amount of money she had spent, a feeling which is likely to be shared with students of higher education courses everywhere. Harrison decided instead to pursue an education gained through experience working on internships, residencies and research projects. She is now part of several artist collectives in London, Leeds and Liverpool and recommended to any members of the audience who were soon to graduate, to avoid the recent culture of working for free in large organisations. Instead she suggested setting up something like a self-organised collective which, from her experience, could be a much more worthwhile experience of the art world.

Our final speakers of the day were Kate Genever and Steve Pool, who are the founders of Poly-Technic, a project based in Sheffield which offers art related courses and opportunities for artists. They work on an idea that knowledge can be found in places and people as well as books and the internet, and create publications based on ideas created through discussion, the next of which they wanted our help with. They asked us the question ‘Are you equipped to be useful?’ for which we individually wrote down answers in smaller groups. The results can be found on their website: (number 4).

For the closing section of the day a panel discussion was formed, which included all the afternoons speakers as well as Richard Bell, who is programme director of the undergraduate Fine Art degree at the University of Leeds. A discussion followed about which route was more relevant to art today, with Richard commenting on his own academic perspective of the place of fine art in higher education, with it generally being decided that these degree courses still provided vital thinking and doing space for future artists and therefore are still necessary.

The thought provoking discussion and debates were carried through until the end of the day and sustained a high level of interest from both the participants and audience. The response and feedback we got from the public was extremely positive with art organisations such as PSL and Pavilion, who were in attendance, commenting on the day as very stimulating. We were left with a huge number of questions which we feel can be taken further through our future projects.



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