Quality, not quantity, is the main concern

With regard to Sutherland Lyall’s Private View (DW 3 November), true, this Government has increased the participation rate in higher education from one to seven to one in three in recent years, and true, it has not matched this increase with pro rata funding.

The massive societal and economic shift that has eliminated the need for factory fodder has led strategists to conclude we need a better-educated workforce. The Government, faced with unacceptable levels of potential unemployment, killed two birds with one stone and dumped the problem on higher education.

There have been dramatic structural and academic changes in higher education to cope with this sudden demand, some successful, some less so, but all point to the fact that the issues are being confronted and addressed against a background of diminishing finances for courses and students, fixed-term contracts, regular appraisal, student quotas and continuous political intervention (all of which create a superb exercise in problem solving).

However, at the centre of these conflicting pressures rests the issue of quality; of courses, staff and students. If quality thresholds are not met, courses will be closed through withdrawal of funding. Quality is the principle concern of all educators.

I don’t know if or when Sutherland went to college, but it certainly ain’t like it was when he was a lad. In many places, the best of the old regime has been retained alongside some new and interesting ways of developing the learning experience. For example, independent learning was always a feature of art and design education and still is, but now it is more consciously acknowledged, evaluated and focused than before.

Better courses are perhaps now broader in their approach to design and less vocational in emphasis: that is, more education and less training, because old certainties have gone forever.

It is not simply about talent in the narrow sense based on the crude formula of success and failure, but about developing abilities with emphasis on students’ individual attributes. It is important to know why you have done something and to judge the extent to which it solves the problem.

Art and design education is coping as best it can in the full and open knowledge that the design profession is not big enough to absorb the graduate output, but that was not its brief. Yes, there are a lot of disillusioned graduates on the streets from all disciplines. Maybe Sutherland has misdirected his fire.

The only way the design profession can grow is to convince industry of the value and central importance of design in invention, production, marketing and sale of its goods and services. This is a task that the profession and its hangers-on – the Design Council, Chartered Society of Designers, and the like – have largely failed to do over the past 40 years.

David Beauregard

Course director, Graphic Design

Bath College of Higher Education

Bath BA2 9BN

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