Correcting mistakes

So, the education system is a mess, as students and educators alike keep reminding us. Sutherland Lyall is sick of hearing complaints from too many students with no talent, and teaching staff who are afraid of rocking the bureaucratic boat which they them

So there are more first-year design students than there are practising designers. Time to cut numbers, eh? No way, say the educators and the design practice bosses. The former need lots of students to maintain their departmental funding. The latter need lots of students so they have lots of choice in which young hotshots they hire – at salaries they themselves would have angrily spurned had they been offered them all those golden years ago before their talent leaked away.

Remember these fundamental truths when you come across people spouting apparently high-minded wisdoms on the topic of student numbers. They’ve all got shabby little axes to grind.

So too have the students. Pathetically idealistic as ever, they apparently have this strange idea that their colleges want to turn them into the greatest designers since Neville Brody and Katharine Hamnett – and that they will ensure they have the facilities and staff do this. Come on. As the few tired, tenacious old hacks now running the nation’s art colleges have to keep believing, if they are to remain sane, designers of the quality of the Brodys and Hamnetts would have been great whatever art school they attended.

The edu-hacks can’t actually say that in public because their masters would have further reasons for cutting staff and developing longer successful applicant lists. They have to believe it, for they would otherwise have to consider letting veins in view of what they have countenanced in design education: “undifferentiated expansion”, as one education panjandrum recently put it in these pages.

Students complain, as students always do, about the increased ratio of students to teachers, the infrequency with which they see teachers, and their too-frequently jaded abilities. Recently, some London students had the temerity to complain about being set the perfectly interesting environmental exercise of painting those parts of the studios which were to be occupied by paying students from overseas.

The racist implications of the above are disturbing – almost as disturbing as the failure to grasp the real-economics of post-Thatcherist education. Education has gone through a much-needed change, and at least the people at the top understand they are leaders of a new segment of industry to which the basic rules of such things as profitability, resource streamlining and bottom lines are just as critical as they are in any other service industry.

What is characteristic of this particular branch of service industry is the fact that any quality goals – or indeed any goals at all – seem to have been put on hold in the race for numbers and funding – all the better if it is self-funding either via rich students’ parents or overseas governments.

You’ve probably heard that perfectly true story about that go-getting Midlands new-university vice- chancellor who underbid a London educational institution for an overseas student education “package”. And we’re talking millions here.

But what about the issue of restricting student numbers? Isn’t there some virtue in controlling the number of people entering the design professions? Shouldn’t there be some design-industry quality control, tougher degree standards, two-level degrees, perhaps something like the architects’ requirement for at least a year’s office training, and night- school classes in professional practice before they can call themselves architects? Or what about even failing quite a lot of patently talentless students?

Look, it’s a bit embarrassing asking this, but what drugs are you doing? Failing talentless students hasn’t been an option for yonks – even before education “packages” – because it suggests you’ve accepted far too many talentless people from foundation courses in the first place and your teaching is no good. No red-blooded educationalist is ever going to admit that. Especially now, when the sheer numbers which the talentless represent can also represent the difference between closing a course down or not. And what does it matter? The Italians used to graduate tens of thousands of architects each year – and does Italy have an architect problem? Of course not.

As for the other suggestions, get real. The new art education managers are running this tertiary education industry expansion. Provided they hang on, keep the numbers growing, rationalise the teaching staff, space and resource usage, and get Group 4 in to mind the dean’s new Jaguar, they’ve got jobs for life – even if everybody else below them in the industry is on one- and two-year four-fifths contracts with no provision for holiday pay. It’s called progress, folks.

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