Concerns have been raised about discrimination in admissions to art and design colleges, following the publication of new research.
The report, Art for a Few, scrutinises admissions by examining institutional statements, prospectuses, websites, interviews with tutors and observations from 70 admissions interviews at five unnamed institutions. It has been commissioned by the National Arts Learning Network, and authored and researched by University of the Arts London.
One of the key findings is the incidence of unmitigated discrimination. In a transcript from an application by ‘Nina’, a black working-class woman from a poor inner city area applying for a fashion design BA, a tutor is recorded asking, ‘What are the influences on your work?’, to which a prompted response is the ‘history of hip hop’.
A decision is taken by the interviewers to reject the candidate, despite recognising a strong portfolio prior to interview, which they cite as the justification for rejection. One interviewer is recorded as saying, ‘Well, she’s all hip hop and sports tops.’ The other adds, ‘We’ll say her portfolio was weak.’
The report suggests that in this case, tutors’ judgements were shaped by ‘implicit, institutionalised, disciplinary perspectives of what counts as legitimate forms of experience and knowledge’. The next candidate, a less-qualified white middle-class male from ‘a spa town’, is selected.
Laura Woodroffe, director of education and professional development at D&AD, sees cases like this as a worrying example of ‘sexism, racism and classism as implicit’.
The report does not state how indicative or ingrained this problem is, but highlights several modes of practice which need to be addressed.
Woodroffe believes that ‘many institutions have a deeply embedded notion of the ideal student’, and adds that preconceptions are bound to develop at long-established institutions where ‘there has been a reluctance to challenge those assumptions’.
A lack of information on guidance for the application process – especially for those without access to privileged forms of cultural capital, including knowledge of contemporary designers and artists – is recognised by the report as a problem that needs to be addressed.
Similarly, criteria for assessing ability and potential – which is seen as innate – whether through portfolio, test or interview, are seen as equally undefined.
Woodroffe sees the notion of looking for ‘innate ability’ in applicants as ‘particularly unhelpful’ and systemic, in that it can be a problem within, and following, education. ‘It’s a cop-out,’ she says. ‘It’s a way of getting out of saying what makes a great creative person.’
In addition, the conflation of the terms ‘fair’ and ‘transparent’ in institutions’ literature are cited as problematic in the report, as they can become muddied and undefined. It is unclear how ‘fairness’ will be put into effect, the report finds.
In mitigation, Woodroffe admits that there will always be an element of subjectivity in any selection process, and suggests these kinds of judgement are also being made by recruiters in the industry, because many people in design come from exactly the backgrounds that these selection processes favour.
Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art, says the report raises some interesting observations, adding ‘Tutors placing value in what is essentially an individual’s temperament or character – such as “wit” or “outgoing nature” – are worrying.’
He says the report’s findings on access to social and cultural capital are ‘disadvantageous’ to applicants excluded by geographical and socio-economic barriers.
Elizabeth Rouse, deputy rector at the University of the Arts London, says that, based on early findings from the report, her institution made interventions into its own practices. ‘The findings of the report are not entirely surprising to us, and – to be slightly critical – it does not allow for change at institutions.’
Rouse says that the problems highlighted in the report are not unique to the design industry, and is keen to point out that the demographic of University of the Arts London was made up of 33 per cent of people from working-class backgrounds in 2008.
Jackie McManus, co-author of the report and head of widening participation programmes at University of the Arts London, has run portfolio advice days hosted by the Tate in response to the report’s findings, Rouse says.
She adds, ‘We’re also running the Newham Creative Hub with students and teachers to help them develop a greater understanding of what’s required in higher education.’
Art For A Few report
- Commissioned by the National Arts Learning Network
- Authored by University of the Arts London
- Designed by Magpie Studio