Design education – how radical is radical?

If the new Universities Minister wants to be truly radical, he should ring-fence budgets and deliver on apprenticeships, says Colin Davies

Google the terms ’radical’ and ’conservative’ and you will see how radical the present Government intends to be. This is not a precise, or, indeed, radical indicator of the current political mood, but a useful barometer of the cold winds of radical cutbacks Tory ministers are clamouring to deliver.

One such radical, David Willetts, has moved from the shadows of opposition to become Universities Minister.

In his first substantial speech on university education since the General Election (delivered at Oxford Brookes), Willetts was short on detail, but gave some pointers where the cuts may fall and how his changes will eventually register in the UK educational system (see box for details).
Rather than being radical, many of his ideas already exist in design education. Nottingham University has taken the exporting of courses to foreign institutes to sublime ends – it has a replica of its Trent campus built near Shanghai.

Closer to home, my own institute, Liverpool School of Art and Design, franchises its degree-giving powers to other institutes mostly in the further education sector. This allows local FE institutes to provide more courses (and increased student numbers) than a traditional art and design school could provide on its own.

FE colleges can often respond to more local industry and employment needs rather than to the national/international agendas of big colleges – the Royal College of Art might ignore a local need for skilled screen-printers generated by the London Olympics for a broader agenda in international communication design, for example.

Regarding the nomenclature of awards in art and design, any simplification would meet little resistance from educators, although some institutions have now reinvented themselves (financially and with student numbers) with the introduction of two-year ’foundation degrees’. These have largely replaced the Higher National Diploma in design education. The HND was built on a commitment to vocational education, a spirit often lost in its FD reincarnation.

How would apprenticeships work in art and design today? Placements are commonplace on many design degrees, but apprenticeships are meant to be vocational rather than sandwiched between academic learning.

One area where apprenticeships could be invaluable is typography. A radical reworking would be a typography apprenticeship which embraces the skill of typesetting and letterform, instead of a convoluted, misguided insistence on its cultural relevance or political stance.

I think apprenticeships in typography could radicalise training in a way traditional degrees never could/ the smell of letterpress or the hum of an Apple Mac instead of the drone of contextual studies and the funk of lecture halls.

Student fees, overseas student income and the popularity of design (and art) subjects has made a few art and design schools financially viable for the universities which sucked them up in the post-1960s education explosion.

Many now lecturing in art and design question the proportion of income devolved to teaching once filtered through the university machine. To satisfy Willetts’ desire for quality teaching, universities need to give constituent schools and departments greater autonomy in allocating student income: teaching will always top any department head’s priorities.

Willetts wants to focus education on teaching rather than research, but this is a big mistake in the context of the creative arts. Configured correctly, design schools can be invaluable R&D centres for designers – a luxury the design industry can rarely afford to support on its own, but collaborative partnerships with design schools could reinvigorate the sector.

If the new coalition Government is worried about how to fund the soft subjects of art and design, here’s one final radical idea: ring-fence a percentage of the VAT levied on the goods created by the creative industries – from theatre productions to kitchen sinks – and invest it in art and design education, and this will make for a sustainable system.

I invite Mr Willetts to visit an institution like mine which acts to engage the public, students and industry in the debate on what design is today – and how design can be woven into the economic fabric of an area like Liverpool and the North West, not only creating cultural capital but pounds, shillings and pence too.

Colin Davies is Head of the design department at Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University

David Willetts’ ideas

  • The franchising out of degrees by key universities – allowing students to study at home or at a local college, but still have the stamp of a ’prestigious’ university on the final qualification. He cites the University of London as a contemporary (and historical) player in this field
  • A simplified (retro) branding of qualifications, which can be understood by student and business alike: HNDs, apprenticeships and so on
  • The focus on teaching over research (teaching is a powerful mantra in his thinking)
  • New Independent Higher Education Institutions, delivering specific areas of education, rather than the universal

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