Act to keep design top of the class

The Government’s swingeing cuts in design education funding call for tough choices to be made to maintain standards, says Dick Powell

I recently attended a parliamentary event where the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts presented research on creative clusters, with a trio of MPs on the platform, drawing attention to the importance of the creative industries. No mention was made though that while the Government makes great play of the importance of our creative industries (to innovation, in particular), the education system which produced them and is now required to sustain them, is to be cut off at the knees.

There’s no doubt we are in a right old pickle with our (formerly world class) design education system. There will be many who will bristle with indignation over any suggestion that we have slipped down the education rankings – world-class lecturers fighting passionately within a system that is unsustainable and needs fundamental change.

The Government has presented art and design education (along with all other non-Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths) with a 40 per cent cut in funding in 2012-14, which is supposed to be made up by increased student contributions of up to £9000 per student a year. And, given that Government’s left hand is clearly not connected to its right, they probably don’t appreciate how important creativity is to ’critical’ Stem subjects, and that they are washing the innovation baby away with the educational bath water.

The Government is assessing the implications of these cuts; universities and other bodies are jostling to ensure survival in extremely difficult circumstances. But there’s a whiff of turkeys voting for Christmas about this, which suggests that we will end up with an even steeper decline in the quality of our design education.

Whingeing is a waste of time. Education is being asked to take its share of pain in reducing public debt so, rather than each institution trying to mitigate the effect of cuts, I see an opportunity to take a serious look at our design education system and reshape it – and its funding – to meet our future needs. It is a design problem, and it is best solved by figuring out where we are, and then establishing a strategic vision for what the product or service ought to look like to meet future needs – say, five years hence. Then we need to marshall support behind that vision, figure out how it can best be delivered and get on and do it.

That’s what happens in industry and commerce. But, I’m guessing that Government, with its wide consultation process, conflicting agenda and fear of disenfranchising the few in pursuit of betterment for the many, can’t behave in this entrepreneurial way. I hope I’m wrong – and the Parliamentary Commission for Design taking this on gives me hope.

I see an opportunity to take a serious look at our design education system and reshape it – and its funding – to meet our future needs

So where are we? What I predicted has happened – the explosion in courses, universities and student numbers to meet the educational needs of the many has resulted in a fall-off in quality in the education of the few who want to, and are capable of, forgeing a career in the creative industries. Colleges, often trading on undeserved reputations from glory years, bolster funding with high-paying foreign students who, too often, go home disappointed. Falling standards will eventually translate into reducing foreign student numbers as they choose to go elsewhere.

The number of courses and students is way out of proportion with the needs of the creative industries. That was fine, so long as there was funding for talented lecturers, facilities and equipment to keep our standards high. But there hasn’t been for years, and now even that low base of funding has to be scythed by a further 40 per cent – a huge amount of talent will be lost to the UK, simply because they can’t afford it. Some courses will fold for lack of students and funding, but the majority will limp on even more impoverished than before. It is hardly a recipe for excellence.

What of a solution? It is absurdly simple to outline but, in today’s political climate, ludicrously difficult (though not impossible) to deliver. We need a two-tier system: someone needs to make some hard choices and identify a limited number of colleges and courses which deliver excellence and reputation. Let’s call them Centres of Excellence and ensure that they are located in the right places. For example, Coventry might become a Centre of Excellence for transport design.

High Wycombe and Kingston, well regarded for producing advertising creatives, might be Centres of Excellence in graphic communications. The Royal College of Art would certainly become a Centre of Excellence for post-graduate studies.

Then, rather than cut funding across the piste and drag down standards, you increase funding for these centres and their courses and divide whatever is left between the others. Obviously, a system will be needed to manage the accreditation process and maintain standards, but the net result will be that the best students will be fighting over limited places at Centres of Excellence, rather than colleges fighting over a dwindling pool of students willing to pay.

Others will have other ideas. But whatever we do, let’s not just sit by and watch the accelerating degradation of our design education system.

Dick Powell is co-founder of Seymour Powell and a member of the Design Commission steering group on design education

Funding cuts – the implications

  • The Government has presented art and design education with a 40% cut in funding in 2012-14, which is supposed to be made up by increased student contributions of up to £9000 per student a year
  • Affordability issues will result in a huge amount of design talent being lost to the UK
  • Courses will be forced to close for lack of students and funding, while other will limp on, thereby dragging standards down
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  • Amy Fox November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It’s sad to see a cut in funding to art and design education but the systems do need a shake up. My uni education was important to me and useful, but I think faced with the current system there are better ways to invest £27,000! I’d definitely expect more from the lectures, lecturers and the facilities than I received if I’d paid those fees. I now run a success web design business (, imagine the kit I could have set up with with nearly thirty grand!

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