Back to the school daze

Colleges are about to open their doors to a new batch of young creative blood. But be warned, says Liz Farrelly, colleges are currently in a state of flux. Instead of churning out mediocre work on badly run courses, they should either get vocational or go

It’s the beginning of the academic year and another intake of design students is being welcomed to the fold. But how long before the bubble bursts and they wake up to the harsh reality of what our once renowned design colleges have become?

While unashamedly trading on past glories with their roll-calls of starry but ageing ex-pupils, the truth is design colleges are in a mess. Face facts. After three years of design education, a new graduate may land a job with a below the national average salary as a junior slave, because that’s about all they’ve been trained to do. Amid cries of “it were tough down PMT room in my day”, no-one in the industry seems worried about exploiting hungry young talent, and, sadly, their expectations come pretty low anyway. A school-leaver recently interviewed on TV dreamt of being a “Mac operator/graphic designer”. Apparently, button-pushing and creativity are linked.

So what’s to be done? Before reform must come dialogue, within the colleges, between staff, students and administrators. But those places are run like Colditz. One false move and…

Last year, at a particularly lauded institution, tutors revolted, sparked by the fact that departments were having to tighten their belts while pots of cash remained unallocated, or were blatantly squandered. Then the powers that be put the frighteners on staff, and warned them not to talk to the press.

Another college terminated all part-time contracts. Then the full-time staff were asked if they’d mind putting their personal research to one side and teaching the basics which part-timers had taught for years. All to trim budgets.

Allegedly, I won’t name names. I don’t need a bagful of mail from irate guilty consciences. It could be a whole lot of people, but it’s almost impossible to prove. Accountable, to whom? Enforceable, by whom? These vast institutions thrive on in-fighting, hearsay and the sort of back-stabbing office politics which would impress even the Borgias. But get rid of part-time lecturers and you destroy the diversity of opinions and approaches which feeds creativity. All that’s left is the institutionalised party-line. And, while non-unionised part-timers are being squeezed out, overworked and underpaid, an immensely powerful elite, at the top of the education hierarchy, pass go and draw vast salaries.

But why worry? Well, in an attempt to win more funding, colleges are getting greedy and increasing their intake, resulting in over-stretched facilities and a lowering of standards. The letter from industrial design students at Central Saint Martins (DW 2 August), although adopting a discernably cowed tone, spelt it out: the glowing claims of the prospectus were never quite delivered. The London Institute, of which CSM is the jewel in the crown, is one of the richest educational institutions in Europe, and, so it would appear, one of the stingiest.

On a more sinister note, corporate sponsorship has become an accepted method of boosting budgets. Allegiances have been made between colleges and some of the world’s dodgiest (allegedly) multinationals – RTZ and BAE, for instance. In effect, the creativity and innovation of unsuspecting students is being used to enhance those with less than snowy-white reputations.

While colleges are busy selling themselves to the highest bidders, and to overseas students for vastly inflated fees, they’re neglecting to tackle a fundamental issue. Sooner or later the current glut of undergrads is going to dry up, as design becomes a less glamorous option. Colleges will only attract second-raters and their laurels will finally wilt.

Two solutions. Either cut the bullshit and teach design as a vocational course producing highly trained practitioners, or go free-form and simply provide the space and stimulation for experimentation. In effect, cut out the middle ground mediocrity of the current BA. The result would be more defined roles within the profession, with complementary designers working in teams where both skill and creativity could be respected and fairly rewarded.

In the meantime, colleges should be raising funds to provide full scholarships for the crème de la crème, otherwise higher education will become the domain of rich kids and exhausted part-time students supporting themselves with either menial jobs in McDonald’s or dole fraud.

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