Dazed and fused

The academic year has begun, and again, a myriad of crises are rearing their ugly heads. Jeremy Myerson talks to those addressing the problems in the system

The skies opened on the UK’s new universities this summer and it rained mud. How much of the dirt is sticking to design education is open to debate, but, as the new term begins, nobody will dispute that this year’s round of design student recruitment has left a bigger question mark than ever hanging over the relationship between the educators and the design profession.

The broad problem is standards. The Government’s shift to a mass-access higher education system has been cruelly exposed this year by a shortfall in numbers. An estimated 30 000 students are missing from the total entry to all subjects, their reluctance to take a university degree perhaps a result of publicity about the levels of debt students acquire and the lack of good jobs at the end of it all.

In the scramble to fill places, the new polyversities (in which the design courses largely reside) have come off worse because they generally recruit from lower income families. Large advertising campaigns and “foundation course” offers to students who have failed their A-levels have been interpreted by the broadsheet press as signs of slipping standards.

The Sunday Times gave a platform for Manchester University education expert Professor Alan Smithers to call for “qualifications that mean something and lead somewhere”, not just a random collection of modules. Every design tutor knows that making a kite is a good exercise in teaching the first principles of weight, form and structure, but a kite-making mini module at Thames Valley University raised a laugh in the papers, along with other academic oddities such as watching TV soaps (cultural studies) and horse-riding (equine studies).

Even the normally sympathetic Education Guardian joined the fray, quoting a science don from one of the 1992 universities as saying: “We do admit candidates who fail their A-levels, but they must have failed the relevant subjects.”

There is no evidence that design courses, very popular in comparison with many of the science and engineering disciplines, have resorted to the bribes and zero-pass offers witnessed elsewhere in the new university sector. But it is inevitable that design education will be tainted by association.

A more complex entry system hasn’t helped matters either. Whereas once nearly all design students applied to courses through ADAR (Art and Design Admissions Register), which guaranteed a stable intake, now many apply through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). UCAS allows entrants to put down eight places and encourages, in the words of one senior educator, “a shopping mentality”, so that students chop and change at the last minute depending on their A-level grades. Unstable course numbers reflect that attitude.

The design profession, already dwarfed by the sheer scale of the design education sector and alarmed at the annual output of around

10 000 design graduates a year, has therefore been given fresh cause to fret about skills and standards. What is design education trying to achieve, ask the professionals, and how can we measure what is going on? Frustration boils just beneath the surface, as a letter from Colin Banks of Banks & Miles to the RSA Journal revealed this summer. “British design students are frightened, short-sighted opportunists compared to students elsewhere in Europe who are more broadly educated and are now their rival job-hunters,” wrote Banks. “Students are packed into the classrooms like numbered peas in a pod with far too few teachers to help them; they are then encouraged to stay on long after any of their vocational shortcomings are apparent. In this way students are cheated of three or more important years of their young lives.”

The problem is becoming acute. Helen Auty, head of design at the Royal Society for the Arts, argues: “We need to look seriously at the system and ask why more emphasis isn’t given to wider opportunities for those with a design training.” She envisages “a two-strand system” developing, in which one strand delivers a general design education to those who will go into a wide range of marketing and management careers requiring design awareness, background and visual literacy, and the other will be strongly vocational, aiming at careers.

“I don’t know how the different strands will be organised,” says Auty. “It could be a general undergraduate education and postgraduate professional training, or a common first year and subsequent streaming of vocation-standard students. But the situation requires change. At the moment the majority of students start design courses thinking they will become professional designers, but that is just leading a lot of people up the garden path.”

One agent of change is the RSA’s Student Design Awards. Running since the 1920s, the scheme is being expanded to embrace broader horizons in design education, including engineering design and multidisciplinary team projects. “We need to overcome individual assessment for degrees which is holding back the evident need and desire for team working,” says Auty.

Multidisciplinary team working is also a central concern for the Design Council’s new Education and Training Foundation, as director Moira Fraser-Steele develops a strategy for higher education. “Design has always taken a linear approach in higher education,” says Fraser-Steele. “The way forward is multidisciplinary team projects, but so far such exercises have largely been confined to design schools. There needs to be more multi-functional working with management and business schools, which we aim to encourage.”

Other key priorities for the Design Council, says Fraser-Steele, are the better integration of information technology within colleges and the broader investigation of sustainable development issues. “If you ask the students, they say information technology is vitally important to their futures,” she explains. “As for the environment, discussion has got to encompass more than just the merits of recycled paper.”

One thing that won’t change, says Fraser-Steele, is the Government’s policy of delivering a mass higher education system in double-quick time in a bid to catch up with other industrial nations. The UK is currently bottom of the league, with Japan, France, Germany, Spain and Italy all well ahead in terms of the percentage of young people who study after the age of 18. “That policy is given. It won’t alter so we just have to work with it,” says Fraser-Steele. “A lot depends on attitudes within educational institutions. It is rather like environmental regulations from the EC – some companies see an opportunity to innovate, others resent the directives because they just want to carry on doing things in the old way.”

Fraser-Steele’s predecessor at the Design Council, Wendy Powell, who heads De Montfort University’s department of design management, puts it in another context: “There was nothing in the Government policy on expansion which said that it all had to be more of the same in design education. But we have had a period of undifferentiated expansion and it could have been done differently. There is now a lot of playing around with the notion of transferable skills, but the way forward is differentiation. We have to put technology and management at the centre of our thinking.”

Powell believes that “there is now a time bomb ticking away in terms of numbers. On a rough and ready calculation, just one year’s total of graphic design graduates will constitute more than the entire profession’s total of jobs. Would lawyers, medics, accountants and pharmacists allow that to continue? The design profession’s representative bodies must be more open and aggressive on the issue of wider opportunities for design graduates”.

Brian Lymbery, director of the Chartered Society of Designers, supports that view, while rejecting strident calls from within the profession for some regulatory control of student numbers, as in medicine. “We do not think any attempt should be made to restrict design graduates to the predicted supply of design jobs,” he says. “Design is not high enough on the agenda of decision makers and there is a benefit to the profession in design graduates going into many fields of employment – PR, marketing, industry, retail, buying, and so on.”

What worries the CSD, says Lymbery, is the issue of modularisation, which varies the content of design qualifications and makes it harder for employers to anticipate what skills graduates will possess. “We also have to look at what a new design graduate is capable of doing on day one,” he adds. “There are sometimes unrealistic expectations of design graduates which are not found in architecture or engineering.”

The CSD and the Design Business Association are currently collaborating on a Design Council-funded booklet, provisionally entitled Working In The Design Business, which will address these issues. Says DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill: “We have a real interest in getting the brightest and the best in the design industry and in ensuring that the supply is maintained. But we are also realistic about our modest size as an industry. Design courses have got to be geared up so that design degrees are recognised by general management employers as being just as valuable as any other degree.”

How this is to be achieved remains the sixty-four million dollar question. Two years ago, a conference on design education and training organised by the Design Forum – a consortium of the major professional design bodies – called for more support from the design industry for education to develop its product. Now the Design Forum lies dormant and it is the refocused Design Council that everyone is looking towards. “The situation requires a certain amount of co-ordinated movement by all the key organisations,” says Auty. “It’s all about design colleges being honest about what they are offering,” suggests Fraser-Steele.

Whatever happens, after this summer of bad publicity for the new universities, kite-making modules will never be the same again. And that is the worry for some design educators. In the drive to make a design degree the same as any other, something special about the nature of design training might be lost. m

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