The number of students applying to study creative arts at university is on the decline. According to the latest available data from Ucas, the number of applications fell 17% from 2011 to 2012.
In 2011, 303,204 applied, and 53,258 were accepted. In 2012, those numbers fell to 253,140 and 47,736, little surprise in a context of huge cuts to the Arts Council, high tuition fees and a cost of living crisis.
Unless they come from privileged backgrounds, art students battle to make ends meet. Viana Gaudino, a foundation student at Central Saint Martins, says: “Many of us are struggling with living costs. We are expected to pay for our own materials and many students cannot afford to use the best. This directly affects the standard of work being produced.”
Gaudino stresses the urgent need for the government to provide grants to arts students. “Students from ordinary backgrounds simply cannot afford the cost of directly paying for their education. It would be great to see students from different backgrounds getting involved in design. For this to happen, we’d need to introduce a grant that covers the expenses of being at art school.”
The national campaigns for fair pay in colleges and universities are being fought in art schools, too. With teaching budgets having taken a big hit in art and design, the national pay offer is highlighting a battle between staff and senior management. While art technicians and lecturers have been subject to 13% real terms pay cuts, vice-chancellors are still awarding themselves above-inflation pay rises.
Gaudino supported staff at her university who went on strike recently over pay cuts: “I hope students and staff continue to strike for fair pay and issues surrounding funding, so that 2014 will be a year of positive change in both further and higher education.”
Kyran Joughin, a senior lecturer at University of the Arts London (UAL), shares these hopes: “I am forecasting unity among teachers and students. I really feel the momentum is there, as never before in the last 10 years.”
Joughin is critical of the growing view of art schools as businesses. Student campaigners are also focusing on how colleges are run, pointing to a lack of accountability, and the big income inequality between the highest and lowest earners.
And arts organisations, the workplaces students hope to enter, have also come under fire. Last month’s news of huge pay rises taken by the Serpentine’s co-directors and the gallery’s failure to pay interns paints a gloomy picture of how arts organisations are behaving in tough times.
For many art graduates, working for free is an impossibility. But Ben Westley-Clark, a fine art student at the Slade, says the chances of artists making it without having worked for free are very slim. He says it’s essential that students press their demand for paid internships.
For Westley-Clarke, the assault on the arts is routed in class. “What the government is doing through privatising education, selling student debt and de-professionalising teaching is exacerbating class divisions. Art education looks set totally to exclude those who can’t afford to keep up. It will increasingly become a pursuit for the children of rich parents.”
Westley-Clarke adds: “I’d like to see art students and activists orient ourselves around community, public and collaborative projects.”
With the student movement as a whole having a revival, arts activists are rediscovering campaigns that long pre-date them. The students union at UAL is planning a series of events to commemorate the Hornsey occupation of May 1968; and the ICA is hosting workshops exploring radical approaches to art education.
Georgia Dennison, a sculpture student at Wimbledon College of Art and a member of the ICA’s student forum, is involved in running these events, titled New Terms.
“The future of arts education going into 2014 is concerning,” she says. “My main fears are the closure of foundation courses, and the homogenisation of students due to the hike in fees.
But, she adds, these threats have led to “inspiring and progressive debates about what art education really should be about”.
Bob and Roberta Smith, artist and associate professor at the Cass Art school, has been one of the leading voices in criticising Michael Gove’s downgrading of creative subjects in schools.
Having organised the Art Party conference in November, a national event in direct response to government policy, he is now resolving to continue the fight in 2014.
His latest text-based piece highlights the 14% fall in the number of children choosing art as a GCSE option. This year he is releasing an Art Party film, which will bring together new ideas in tackling the decline.
Other counter-movements to the government’s agenda have grown in the last year, such as Arts Emergency andOpen School East, which are both providing space for imagining a new, radical approach to arts education.
Momentum in the student movement, action taken by staff unions, and the alternative dialogues being created by artists lend hope to the push for change.
Five themes for our campaign
• Art education is a public good
We need a move away from the business model of art schools. We must demand fair pay across the board, and student grants instead of fees and loans.
• The creative industries need investment
We need funding to create jobs for arts graduates (that pay) and keep arts open to the public.
• Save art in schools
Reversing Gove’s move to deprioritise arts subjects is key to more children choosing it at GCSE and beyond.
• Let’s unite
The coming together of students, teachers, artists and cultural sector workers will breathe life into campaigns.
• Make more art!
It sounds obvious, but creating work that communicates progressive ideas is the best way to influence our communities.