DIScontinuing Education in Fine Art
by David Ainley
The decision by the University of Nottingham to close its dedicated part-time BA (Hons) Fine Art exemplifies the decimation of opportunities for undergraduate study that developed out of a long history of continuing education in the UK and reflects the extent to which provision for creative arts is being culled in the face of calls for their radical re-integration into the educational landscape.
Visitors to the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus could not fail to be impressed by the product of the £200m investment in higher education made over fifteen years on the 7.5 hectare brownfield site where once stood the largest bicycle factory in the world, Raleigh, immortalized for many by Albert Finney’s performance in Karel Reisz’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The most recent additions to what is often spoken of as a ‘Futuristic’ landscape (including the original 1999 buildings by Michael Hopkins and Partners and later ones by Ken Shuttleworth’s ‘Make’) are an Institute of Mental Health, a School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, and a branch of Starbucks. Planned is a GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry. The CEO of GSK, Sir Andrew Witty, a Nottingham alumnus, is now Chancellor of the University. Nottingham clearly means business and with campuses in China and Malaysia its claims to be an innovative research-led international university are well-justified.
It is in this context that what might appear to be little more than a minor decision by the University of Nottingham reflects the extent to which opportunities for widening participation in higher education are rapidly diminishing.
The closure of the BA (Hons) Fine Art to new applicants (current students will be able to complete their course) is the most recent, and arguably the most significant, in a catalogue of decisions made over a decade in the School of Education as the presence of continuing education at Nottingham University becomes as wraithlike as the old Raleigh factory.
When, in Summer 2010, the University closed its Adult Education Centre in Shakespeare Street, at the heart of the city, it celebrated its achievements over a century of adult education in which the University was a pioneer. Robert Peers, who held the world’s first university chair in adult education (1922) and Harold Wiltshire, author of The Great Tradition (1956) and instrumental in the establishment of the Open University, were significant in this history. The relationship between the University and the Workers’ Educational Association (who shared the premises) existed for many years in the joint provision of courses until it was brought to an end as funding arrangements arising from governmental policy that introduced formalized assessments linked to the awards of credits came into force. Ken Coates’ and Bill Silburn’s influential studies of poverty in Nottingham, the basis of Stephen Frears’ TV documentary St. Ann’s (1969), began as part of their 1965-66 adult education class ‘The Anatomy of Britain’. When outposts across the East Midlands, including Tawney House, Matlock (named after R H Tawney) and Pilgrim College, Boston, were closed about eight years ago it lowered the University’s profile in the region and ended a route whereby students had progressed from ‘Open Studies’ to degree courses in a range of disciplines. The abolition of the University’s ‘Study Tours’ programme shortly afterwards had similar consequences.
Among the successes of recent years was the evolution, from their roots in adult education at Nottingham, of part-time degrees in Fine Art, Humanities, Creative and Professional Writing and Counselling Practice. These courses were promoted as “unique in the University in that they are specifically designed to meet the need for tailor-made, part-time provision for local people.”
On their re-location from Shakespeare Street in late 2010 the Vice Chancellor declared that: “The move to the Jubilee Campus is an opportunity to update and expand our provision, which we could not have achieved within the confines of the Grade 2 listed building…”. Dr Sarah Speight, now Deputy Head of School, spoke of “….making full use of the fantastic facilities Jubilee offers.” This move has been generally welcomed by students who acknowledge greater integration with the wider University community, the library, social ameneties, IT facilities, and multi-purpose teaching accommodation.
To discover what the relocation from the city centre meant for Fine Art one must look beyond the iconic architecture of Jubilee Campus, and its 60-metre high sculpture ‘Aspire’, to the outer edge of the site. In a modestly sized building lacking any distinction, in recent memory the workers’ canteen of the Express Diary on Triumph Road, Fine Art practice takes place in studios and a workshop with some temporary ‘project spaces’. Theoretical and contextual studies in the degree take place in the new multi-purpose buildings on the campus. These are well-resourced for lectures and seminars and are shared by the degree courses in Creative and Professional Writing, Humanities and Humanistic Counselling that remain in the School of Education alongside its teacher education and research.
Despite the inadequacy of the studio spaces, the reputation of the Fine Art degree has grown and the achievements of its graduates have been well-regarded by external examiners as “entirely comparable with other respected degrees across the UK.”
Students of other disciplines in the University, such as Architecture and Art History, have benefitted by taking up the opportunity to enroll on elective modules in Fine Art. ‘Art and Anatomy’ has developed as an innovative element in association with the Medical School.
In Autumn 2012 over twenty current students and recent graduates exhibited in a variety of self-initiated or juried exhibitions across the region, some winning awards. Others are succeeding on post-graduate courses elsewhere.
Students typically have joined the degree through non-traditional routes and, taking into account the relatively limited background that many students have at the outset, especially regarding their experience of relating practice and theory in art, value-added is high.
Though once they are committed to the course students accept that what they gain outweighs the challenges of their learning environment, even cultivating positive attitudes of resourcefulness and initiative, it is certain that the studio facilities on offer have frustrated recruitment. This, together with the relative invisibility of the degree in a bland landscape of corporate marketing, its place outside the UCAS system, and the challenges presented by government’s decision to introduce the ELQ rule in 2008/09 whereby support is unavailable for learners studying for a qualification at a level equivalent to or lower than the one they have already been awarded, led the School of Education in the University to suspend recruitment in May 2012. An external review was instated and, despite the identification of the sound academic quality of the degree, in December it was announced that the course would close. Current students will be able to complete their studies over the next few years.
Even though almost all of the tutors are on part-time hourly paid contracts, their commitment to the course as practising artists and teachers has enabled remarkable stability in staffing. In closing the course the University is conveniently faced with fewer issues of redundancy than would normally be the case.
The culling of this unique academically and artistically successful degree course, dedicated to part-time study in Fine Art (as distinct from a more common part-time route through a full-time programme), brings to an end accomplishments in art education that have been hard-won over decades. Their origins may be traced to the innovations of Evelyn Gibbs, founder of the Midland Group of Artists, who introduced art practice into her courses in art appreciation in the early 1940s at the University Adult Education Centre in Shakespeare Street. Following years of ‘Open Studies’ courses in the city and across the region, the BA (Hons) Combined Studies (Visual Arts) was instituted, evolving into the present BA (Hons) Fine Art in 2006, a course especially designed for part-time study over six, and now four, years.
Fine Art (rather than Art History) is not widely taught in Universities in the elite Russell Group of which Nottingham is a member, but Oxford (The Ruskin School), London (The Slade), Newcastle, Leeds and Southampton (Winchester School of Art) have highly regarded full-time courses.
At the University of Nottingham Fine Art has existed like a rather extraordinary epiphyte. It has not been parasitic on the institution but without the support that might have rooted it more firmly in its environment it has succumbed in a hostile climate.
One might wish that universities could be influential by bringing ground-breaking research in learning and teaching to bear in shaping governmental educational policy, taking into account the variety of needs and abilities of prospective students. Instead, outdated and discriminatory agendas persist in which rigour is associated only with ‘academic’ subjects set apart from studies that involve developing knowledge and skills through practice. Research and analysis in material culture, arts and sciences are often regarded as incompatible, and ‘vocational’ is limited to mere instrumentalism that is intellectually and critically disengaged.
The Russell Group of elite Universities in 2011 published its guide to post-16 subject choices identifying ‘facilitating subjects’ at A level. These subjects – mathematics, English, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and languages (classical and modern) – correspond to those included in the EBacc, and are described on the Department for Education website as “designed to ensure that all pupils have the opportunity to study a broad core of subjects”. The ignorance underlying the exclusion of the creative arts from this is potentially a social, economic and educational disaster in its prejudice against students whose abilities lie in those areas and is counter to policies on widening participation. Cultural figureheads have voiced their concerns that the marginalization of the creative arts in the curriculum will result in long-term damage to the economy and the UK’s prestige in these areas. The University of Nottingham’s School of Education, that declares its “broad commitment to improving and investigating social justice in education”, and in which the part-time Fine Art degree has been uniquely situated, has been ideally placed to make an important contribution to educational debate and innovation by reinforcing its commitment to a course in which practice and theory in creativity are closely related through a programme matched to current and evolving trends in society, including providing for people in under-employment, those who have responsibilities as carers but some time for study, and others extending their portfolio of skills with regard to re-employment or self-employment following redundancy.
Nottingham University’s most recent decision is the latest in a long line of closures that have devastated continuing education and initiatives in lifelong learning all over the country, reflecting a disturbing trend of exclusion from higher education for many potential students, many of them aspiring first-time entrants to HE, who should be benefitting from pledges made to widen participation.
David Ainley is an artist and lecturer