A response to Robert Hewison's opinion piece on art schools
in the Autumn 2012 issue of RA Magazine
I was extremely disappointed to read the opinion piece, School’s Out by Robert Hewison in the Autumn issue of RA Magazine in which the author took issue with teaching of Art in the public university sector, highlighting in particular Central Saint Martins. It goes without saying that our institutions cannot be compared. The RA is a privately funded postgraduate institution with sixteen students graduating each year. Central Saint Martins is a part of the public University system with over 4000 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Hewison damns this institution by association through anecdotal statements, such as: "I've heard about lack of facilities, insufficient teaching, overcrowding and foundation courses that assumed a 20 per cent drop-out rate." I therefore need to put the record straight.
First, he quotes that there is “a virtual abandonment of part-time teaching by working artists.” This is simply not the case at Central Saint Martins or elsewhere. We have 38 salaried staff and 58 associate lecturers in the School of Fine Art, nearly of all of whom are practising artists and researchers. We take seriously the need to expose our students to current modes of artistic practice as a core of their education. The vast majority of our staffing budget therefore goes on fractional or visiting posts in order to maintain this tradition of practice and teaching working together.
Secondly, he states that: “opportunities to develop traditional hand skills, such as casting, welding and even printmaking are in decline as economies are made and facilities cut back.” Again, simply untrue at Central Saint Martins. The new building is organised around an extraordinary array of workshops ranging from the traditional (casting and welding included) to the digital, and our Archway campus has probably the best equipped printmaking studio in London. This major investment in our workshop base was a key part of our strategy when we moved buildings, because we see all forms of making as central to an arts education.
Thirdly his loose assertion of “foundation courses that assumed a 20 per cent drop-out rate" is again untrue in the case of CSM. Our Foundation course has a retention rate of between 93% and 95%, and of those retained, 99.3% achieved the qualification. These are extraordinary figures by any standard. The course was also rated ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED; a report that is publicly available.
Fourth he mentions our graduate George Bray’s piece ‘The Only Way is Art School’, but only cites the critical comments, when in fact it was far more positive than negative about the students’ experience at Central Saint Martins. Our students are here to question the status quo and so I would be disappointed not to see some challenging views expressed in their work.
I could go on (the charge of reliance on international students is beneath a response), but the real issue of Hewison’s article is that he seems to think it is justifiable to take a swipe at Central Saint Martins and the rest of the public sector. To insinuate that Central Saint Martins and the University of the Arts London is in some way pandering to a ‘Govine’ agenda is simply insulting (as well as impossible in as much as Michael Gove does not have universities as part of his brief). This kind of infighting is exactly what this government would like to see in its endless divide and rule. Instead we should be standing firmly together, articulating the real worth of an arts education and respecting diversity across the sector. In order to generate an informed and articulate debate around these issues Central Saint Martins is launching a major series of events called “What’s the Point of Art School?” We would welcome the participation of the Royal Academy and its friends in this, but not, please, on the basis of anecdote, tired old chestnuts about the atelier, and misinformation.
Professor Jeremy Till is the Head of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design
and the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London
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