Freelance State of Mind: is university really the only option?

Illustrator and designer Ben Tallon looks at how rising tuition fees are deterring budding creative students, and asks whether short courses could be just as valuable.

by Ben Tallon

It’s been said that saddling yourself with a student loan in 2017 is worse than signing up for a mortgage. I don’t always buy into these headlines, but there’s no hiding from the fact that going to university is no longer something to be taken lightly.

And the recent figures can’t be ignored. UCAS statistics released in July revealed that 14,000 fewer students had applied for creative art and design subjects this year compared to 2016.

Are intensive courses viable alternatives to university?

On a recent episode of my Arrest All Mimics podcast, I discussed whether it might be time to see some alternative options to an undergraduate degree, for those not suited to this structure or unable to afford it.

I featured Design and Art Direction’s (D&AD) Shift programme, which is a free, 12-week night school for people with no degree or design studio experience, which currently benefits a small group of people while D&AD develops it. The focus is on ideas and creativity, not one particular discipline. I also spent time talking with Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne about the magazine’s course Mastering Creativity, which follows a similar structure.

The responses were largely positive, garnished with some angry comments on social media. Admittedly, it didn’t help that I had referred to the higher education system as a “dusty old thing”, my way of ensuring a debate was had.

My course offered me creative exploration

What was clear from these conversations was the importance of the university experience. We all highlighted how crucial degree courses are, and felt saddened that students were faced with a tough choice, given the subsequent debt. The feeling was that, those who opted out – and who could blame them – should not be condemned to exile from the creative industries.

From my own experience, I studied at The University of Central Lancashire from 2003-2006 and the step it offered into adult independence was pivotal for me. This involved living in a new city, meeting people from all over the world and being exposed to new ideas.

Eventually, I left with the tools to head into industry with a slight chance of survival. Today, I give guest lectures at many UK universities and see negative patterns emerging. The £9,000-per-year fee is creating a dangerous dynamic where students reject the informal, adult environment that often underpins creative education. They now feel they are customers paying a lofty fee, entitled to constant guidance throughout.

Without freedom to think independently, university is not equipping students

It is necessary to have access to tutor support, but without the freedom to think independently, explore ideas and develop on your own terms, university does not equip students for an industry that is constantly changing. Convincing a parent to get behind the ephemeral nature of this concept is understandably difficult when they are paying so much money.

Then there’s also the intensified pressure on course leaders to fill courses with paying students rather than those on bursaries, presenting tutors with a moral conundrum at the interview stage.

I’ve recently spoken to Graham Wood, co-founder at Tomato, and illustrator Nina Chakrabarti. Both talked lovingly about their time at Central Saint Martins College, where they were exposed to students from all walks of life, and experienced being in London during such a crucial time in their development.

They discussed the lack of pressure, and pointed to the joy of experimentation and how it aided their progress. Wood explained how only having access to one computer forced him to think laterally and find alternate solutions to briefs, which has helped him throughout his career.

University was essential for me, and I feel it will be some time before we see anything that can compete with the higher education system. But unless tuition fees are addressed, something has to give. We are an industry fed by fresh talent – and if the high financial stakes continue to deter students and restrict the supply, is exploring other models really such a bad idea?

Ben Tallon is a Design Week columnist, illustrator, art director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons. He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns here.

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  • Kate Walker August 21, 2017 at 10:21 am

    I went to Shillington (Manchester) after having worked in advertising and design for over 10 years, and walked into a design job almost immediately after finishing the full time 3 month course. Yes, you may miss out on the traditional university experience but, having had that almost 15 years ago, I can tell you that I don’t feel like it added anything to my employability or maturity at the time. An intensive, vocational short course was far more valuable to me than a £30,000 debt could ever justify.

  • RitaSue Siegel August 22, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    The same subject is under serious debate in the US. The tuition charges are much higher than they are in the UK. Participating in and graduating from 4-years of traditional design education with a Bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of having learned the skills and knowledge that the design discipline one wants to enter requires. There are many alternatives in the US and I cannot direct you to a site that compares one to the other, but, Khan Academy, and many, many others get mixed reviews by course takers as do less costly (than 4-year programs)as are 2-year community colleges which offer Associate degrees. (Included in “mixed” are very positive as well as negative reviews.) Most that I’ve read are positive.

    The alternatives to 4 -year programs are on-line, a combination of on-line and in-person part- time programs, or intensive full-time in-person programs. The other alternative is a college or any other organization in the teaching game partnering with a large company that can use and accommodate talented and skilled students as interns and when they graduate. Internships while in school, in a prepared business that offers a structured program, regardless of the type of design education, is usually a win-win situation.

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