‘Centres of excellence’ to take on student glut

Your education supplement (DW 12 July) was a welcome stimulus to the “what on earth are we going to do about design education?” debate. I would like to add a few comments stimulated by Daniel Weil’s introduction and Mike Horseman’s article, specifically regarding the teaching of industrial design.

Daniel’s plea for “adequate education pastures” and the true role of design as being “to enlighten and inspire” are fine for the ultra-talented and intellectually competent student, but the vast majority need a more basic grounding in real skills and experience. It is hard for an industrial designer to create meaningful and useful work without understanding the processes, technology and materials which inform the design, and the skills and experience necessary to expediate it.

The “cynical pursuit of funding” to which Mike Horseman refers has led to the vast excess of student numbers, and the erosion of staff/student ratios to the current disastrous levels. You cannot teach industrial design as you might French, by simply filling up a lecture theatre with more students. A second-year Central St Martin’s student recently told me that he gets ten minutes tuition time per week, and even this is done in small groups – absolutely no chance for staff to teach students “how” and to demonstrate by example. There is no more effective way to impart the skills, experience, knowledge and thought processes required than through demonstration and example. Industrial design requires a level of competence firmly grounded in the reality of today’s problems. Student projects rarely square up to this challenge, preferring instead to pursue solutions dislocated from today’s technology, where a futuristic solution often avoids the issues, rather than solving them.

Not only does all this require more time/staff than the system permits, it also presupposes a level of competence, experience and willingness which is rare among teaching staff. Worse, those who are able are forced into administrative and organisational roles just to keep the whole precarious mess from collapsing – if I were a student I’d think seriously about suing my college for not delivering on the promise of the glossy prospectus.

So what are the solutions? For the vast majority, some form of further education is clearly better than none at all; the worry is that this is having a fundamental effect on the talented and able minority who have a real contribution to make to design. Already some foreign government organisations are making their own assessments of our universities and colleges and only funding foreign students to go on “first division” courses.

I have long advocated the creation of “centres of excellence” for specific subjects, possibly allied to local industry and expertise (Coventry for transport, Stoke-on-Trent for ceramics and so on). To do this, a way would have to be found to improve or prioritise funding for such centres and to reduce numbers, enhance staff/student ratios and improve facilities. Such centres would also provoke much-needed competition, both from students seeking places and among colleges in pursuit of a first-division rating.

In my view, this is the only way to create a climate for creative achievement where the designers of the future can work among their peers and achieve a much higher level of competence. Only that way can those who are capable equip themselves to “innovate and dream” and so dispel the “cultural impoverishment of the design activity” which Daniel passionately highlights.

Dick Powell

Seymour Powell

London SW6

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