Design educators condemn “crack down” on university degrees

Though the Government insists its plan is not an attack on any sector, the measures have been deemed “hugely problematic” by design education experts.

Members of the design education community have raised concerns following the Government’s plan to “crack down on rip-off university degrees” announced yesterday

Under the plans, the Office for Students (OfS) – an external public body – will carry out assessments of individual courses. A range of metrics will be assessed, including dropout rates, earning potential for graduates and how many students are in employment within 15 months of graduation.

Courses which are deemed to be “poor quality” will be subject to stricter controls, according to the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. This could include capping the number of students universities can recruit onto a course or even scrapping it all together.

When asked to name any degrees that could be subject to recruitment limits, education minister Robert Halfon refused to specify any courses but told Design Week it is “definitely not an attack on any particular sector”. Instead, the Government claims to be looking at courses on an individual basis, meaning a design course at one university may be deemed good quality while the same course at a different university may not.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson argues that it is “simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a government that wants to reinforce the glass ceiling, not smash it”.

“Hugely problematic and mired in judgments”

Given the Conservative government’s historic lack of support for arts education – evident through funding cuts in recent years – design educators have expressed concern about the policy. While there appears to be no explicit threat to design courses, the metrics that the Government propose to use run the risk of reinforcing a social, cultural and economic hierarchy in universities, according to Ravensbourne University London associate professor and head of Creative Lab Derek Yates.

He describes the metrics as “hugely problematic and mired in judgments”, adding that the measures will only serve to widen the gap of “social and economic inequality that has increased so dramatically in UK over the last twenty years”. Yates believes that the current government sees Russel Group institutions as “the supposed benchmark of high quality” but, having previously worked at a perceivably “good” university, he disagrees.

“What I saw was an institution that was very clever at playing league table metrics and a university made to look good by privileged students who already had the background and connections that would enable them to succeed”, says Yates. He adds that it was an environment where students who didn’t fit this template were “often excluded or marginalised, or simply not offered a place on the course”.

Yates calls for “more sophisticated, more nuanced and more inclusive ways of judging a universities performance” as a solution.

“Metrics don’t capture the full story”

University of Leeds associate professor in graphic design Dr Catherine Stones recognises that recently (13 June 2023), the Government issued a press release highlighting its support for the Creative Industries, making her sceptical as to whether “design itself is being targeted with this latest news”. However, Stones does suggest that the metrics could disproportionally favour certain subjects.

“To equate the value of a degree purely by earning potential is, in my view, dangerous”, she says, explaining that design graduates could acquire “rewarding design jobs” but never reach the salary level of an accountant or doctor, “and that’s still ok”.

Stones welcomes the prospect of increasing transparency “to help young people make the best decisions” on what to study but strongly believes that “metrics don’t capture the full story”. For instance, she says: “Dropout rates depend on a huge number of factors that the government has to take into account such as mental health problems, home issues and personal finances.

“Courses with low student numbers on entry, which may affect the more niche Design courses, will be especially hit by this metric.”

Design Council chief executive officer Minnie Moll reiterates that “a narrow focus on graduate wages could lead to cuts in courses that are vital talent pipelines” and, in turn, negatively impact industry diversity.

Moll explains why it is “crucial that creative courses are not mistakenly undervalued by the government’s proposed review”, noting that “the design economy generates 97.4 billion in GVA and employs almost 2 million people”. She urges the Government to consider the “wider value” that design degrees bring to students and society, factoring this into how courses are assessed.

“Higher education is an important pathway for the sector”

Sunak says that the key message of the policy is that “you don’t have to go to university to succeed in life” and he has often advocated for apprenticeships.

Stones disputes this and counters that an undergraduate degree in design “is so much more than an apprenticeship”, as it facilitates both “academic and critical skills alongside practice”. She adds that it also “nurtures skills in broad creative thinking and offers a myriad of transferable life skills”.

Moll highlights that the UK houses “the world’s two highest ranking art and design universities” and notes that today 62% of UK designers hold a degree. She believes that “although higher education is not the only route, it is an important pathway for the sector”.

The Government announcement also details that the maximum fee that can be charged for classroom-based foundation year courses will be reduced to £5,760, down from £9,250. The Government says that classroom-based foundation year courses – an additional year of study designed to help prepare students for degrees with specific entry requirements – are being “encouraged in subjects where it is unnecessary”. This will place the burden of responsibility on the universities, which will have to cover the fees.

The OfS is expected to start gathering information on university courses “in due course”, according to the Department of Education.

Banner image credit: Monkey Business on Shutterstock

Featured image credit: Chris Donrney on Shutterstock

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