Reasons to be fearful

The Marie Celeste of academia or an oversubscribed, pick-and-mix jumble of courses? Design education is seen as both – and it doesn’t bode well for the future, says Jeremy Myerson

If you think you’ve got it tough in design practice, the UK’s design educators are hardly lying on a bed of roses. More like a bed of nails. No sooner have they survived a gruelling nationwide round of assessment to compete for Government research funds than they face an uncertain future as Sir Ron Dearing’s much-touted inquiry into higher education promises yet another shake-up of the system.

When the National Association for Three- Dimensional Design Education met recently in Manchester, its publicity flyer neatly summed up the pressure: “Are you suffering from post-Research Assessment fatigue or pre-Dearing tension?”

All of this against a background of education chiefs constantly trying to push through more design students with fewer resources, and design professionals constantly sniping at what colleges are trying to achieve because they are worried about a growing mismatch between the massive annual graduate output and the industry’s rather slimmer recruitment needs.

Design education used to be all about drawing. Now it is all about mathematics. And for those who would like to measure the education-profession mismatch in cold statistics, there are plenty of figures to play with. Currently, there are around 62 000 students taking full-time courses in design-related areas at 190 universities and colleges in the UK. It is estimated that about a third of Europe’s 30 000 design graduates each year are trained in the British system. In the wider context, according to Royal College of Art rector Christopher Frayling, there are now more art and design students graduating in Europe and America each year than there were Florentines living during the Renaissance. That is a humbling thought.

To cope with such huge numbers, British design education has been forced to adopt new teaching strategies. Modularised and distance-learning techniques with less tutor contact time have started to take over from the more expensive, hands-on, atelier methods of the past.

All of this has alarmed the design profession, none more so than the top designers who chair the influential juries of the Royal Society for the Arts Student Design Awards. Last autumn, in an unprecedented move, they got together to complain about falling standards of student work. The result was a report, UK Design Education: Signs of Strain, which highlighted basic deficiencies in drawing, presentation and research skills, and blamed greatly expanded numbers for “deteriorating standards in the middle ground of students”.

Some disciplines were identified by the RSA as improving, especially multimedia and animation. Others, however, gave cause for concern. In one case – furniture – entries were so poor that the RSA has suspended that subject area for a year to sort out a new direction.

But if design colleges have had their knuckles rapped by the RSA, the design profession doesn’t get off lightly either. According to Professor Alan Livingston of Falmouth College of Arts, who as chairman of the RSA Design Advisory Group initiated the report, “the speed and intensity of recent changes in higher education – especially with regard to course aims, numbers and modularity – are not sufficiently recognised and well understood by design professionals”.

To give designers a better insight into what is happening to design education in the UK, I have identified six key threats to its future. Inevitably, the issue of student numbers tops that list. Although there has been some recent slowdown in expansion since the heady days of 1990 when the binary line between universities and polytechnics was removed, design remains a popular subject. Degree-level applications have risen by 12 per cent over the past five years and there is very wide provision of courses.

Yet while the design profession frets over the impact of large class sizes on quality of training, some courses are now struggling to fill all their places. To meet institutional targets, colleges are forced to divert more and more resources into frenzied recruitment campaigns. These create the swollen numbers that the design industry – especially its graphics wing – finds so detrimental to learning craft skills.

The numbers game could get worse before it gets better. Determined recruitment of overseas students, especially from the Pacific Rim, has been followed by UK universities establishing franchises abroad. But once the franchised design schools are opened in places such as Malaysia and Korea, will the overseas students stop coming and hit recruitment even more? All of this leads Brian Webb of Trickett & Webb – an external examiner at Staffordshire University and a member of the Chartered Society of Designers’ education committee – to question the direction of the entire system. “Not all professional designers are ignorant of changes in design education,” he says. “I understand precisely what’s going on and the time has come to question whether the university sector is really compatible with art school education, which is so people- and capital-intensive.”

This point opens up the vexed issue of funding. Higher education faces a cash squeeze on the 2.3bn allocated by Government for university and college teaching. Scare stories about budget deficits, compulsory academic redundancies and top-up fees for students have dominated the press for months. Design-related subjects are regarded by institutions as expensive, with studios, equipment and technicians all more difficult to justify in a cutback climate. Crafts-based disciplines with costly materials are especially under threat. Some administrators reason in private that it is far cheaper to develop courses which talk about design rather than actually practise it. These courses may have their own academic validity, but they do not help the profession’s future training needs.

What makes matters worse is that design sits uneasily in the university infrastructure. This point is made forcibly by Georgina Follett, head of the School of Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College, a faculty of the University of Dundee. “Most other disciplines can make up some of these funding difficulties through research councils,” explains Follett. “For many, only 60 per cent of their funding is from Government sources. For design, it is usually more than 90 per cent, so funding cuts dig deeper.”

Indeed, the confused relationship between design education and research is fundamental to the problem. On the face of it, art and design didn’t do badly in the recent Research Assessment Exercise, which handed out government cash to individual institutions on the basis of the scope and quality of research being carried out inside departments. In the 1997/98 round, 11.4m has been earmarked for art and design. But this is small change compared to the 704m for the sector as a whole.

Noises from Sir Ron Dearing’s inquiry suggest that an arts and humanities research council (embracing design) could be set up to mirror those that exist in the science and engineering subjects. But there are fears that all the money could be diverted to theoretical interpreters of art and design rather than practitioners.

Design has not, it must be said, helped its own research cause. Professor Mike Press, of Sheffield Hallam University, wrote recently in the academic journal Co-Design: “There can be no field of human endeavour in which its practitioners have contributed so little.” Press described design as “the Marie Celeste of academia: an elegant and functional vessel slipping through the waters of culture and commerce”. He added: “It is boarded with ease by historians, economists, technologists, managerial theorists, semiologists, architects and engineers, all of whom find the bridge and cabins deserted.”

Press, an economist by training, ran a conference entitled Ethical Design Research as part of Design In Education Week. “If you want to know something about law, you ask a lawyer,” he says. “If you want to know something about medicine, you ask a doctor. If you want to know something about design, you ask an economist, a technologist or a historian. Design is a unique form of human knowledge, but practice by itself does not make that knowledge transparent.”

If university research demands are threatening traditional patterns of design education, so too is modularisation. A pick-and-mix approach by students to what they learn will increasingly mean they do not get a consistent, studio-based design education, with a uniform skill base that can be readily communicated to employers.

Graduates sharing the same design qualification will often have had very different, dispersed educational experiences, and developed very different capabilities depending on what modules they have chosen. This makes it difficult for tutors and employers to keep track; but as increasing numbers of students work during term to finance their college studies, the flexibility inherent in modularity is likely to make it more ubiquitous, not less.

Equally unsettling to design education are new forms of digital technology which are questioning conventional wisdom on what teaching graphic design or industrial design, say, should entail. If, for example, there is a fourth dimension in time-based electronic media, whither 3D design? That issue was raised at the recent Three Dimensional Design Education conference in Manchester. Academics cheered themselves up with the conclusion that 3D design still had a central role to play in humanising technology, in interpreting the real needs of users, and in bringing the finesse of craft finish and detail to customised manufacturing. On top of that, the social and ethical context of 3D design education enabled students to connect with the moral and cultural issues that mattered most to them as individuals.

Design educationalist Christine Atha, curator of the Design Museum’s Review Gallery, argues that new technology should be an opportunity for product and graphic design education, not a threat. “Just as industry has created smaller, more focused units, so design courses should specialise in particular technological niches such as transport or medical products, win external business support and go for it.” In the middle of Design In Education Week, with so much stacked against them within universities, that is a positive thought for design educators to carry forward to the Easter break.

Design In Education Week continues until 23 March and incorporates 100 events. Hotline: 0171-839 1553.

Jeremy Myerson is affiliated to the School of Design and Manufacture at De Montfort University, Leicester, where he is professor of contemporary design.

Six of the worst threats to design education


Larger student numbers are reducing tutor contact, increasing administrative burdens, and threatening the teaching of craft design skills. Frenzied recruitment is a matter of survival.


Within the university sector, design lacks a research council and relies more than most other disciplines on central government funding. So when cuts bite, they dig deeper.


Design practice is still uncomfortable with critical reflection and struggles to capture and communicate knowledge about itself. Research Assessment Exercises are alien to the traditional pattern of design education.


New digital technology is rewriting the rulebook on what should be in a product or graphic design curriculum. Colleges are constantly trying to catch up in terms of equipment.


Students taking a mix of different modules no longer receive a uniform, all-in-together educational experience, and their design qualification will vary in relevance to the profession depending on what modules they have chosen.


The setting-up of overseas design college franchises could mean that fewer overseas students come to the UK to study, hitting course finances and resources.

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