The International Writers Magazine: On University Fees
The Future of Arts Degrees?
The question has arisen - now the vote is passed in Parliament this week about student fees as to whether an arts degree is worth £9000 a year (plus all the other costs of food,lodging and beer)?
Are arts courses worth the investment of around £30 to £40,000 pounds (none of which needs to be paid back at a fairly modest rate until one earns £21,000 a year). Are arts job salaries high enough to justify the investment?
If you study history or art history, creative writing or geography or film studies it's a tough question. If you want to study fine art or drama or dance you'd better be pretty good at it, right? Maybe the critics are right - that there are too many people going to University and they should be learning something that will earn them a living (which presposes we do know what that may be and that you'll be any good at it and or guessing what the future needs of society will be.)
Speaking as someone who has taught higher education for over twenty years now, I'd definitely say that there's a high percentage of students who over-estimate their skills, an enormous amount of students who have no clear idea why they are there or whether the course they are on is right for them, but I'd defend their right to be there. The University experience is life-enhancing. But will it be worth that huge debt if you don't get the career you want?
I chose to go to film school. (Which in those days I had to pay a lot of money for - there were no actual practiced based film degrees in the UK). I wanted to go to the National Film School but the waiting list was five years. Ridiculous. I ended up in Covent Garden and possibly the worst film education money didn't buy. I didn't end up in film. I ended up in radio. The point being that you don't know where your degree or course will take you. But what it will do is tell you what you aren't good at and with luck what you are. You can experiment. If you are fortunate to be at a good institution you'll also participate in debates, life enhancing social skills (face to face rather than Facebook). The smarter student runs societies, networks, does work placements and generally makes themselves visible. It's a lot easier to do this when you are part of something than on your own.
Of course, if you want to be a writer... you could just write. (Earn some money doing almost anything - I've been at various times of my life, adventure tour guide in the USA, cook, crystal glass salesman (Harrods), cement loader on a building site, house painter, all so I could be a 'writer'. All the while I knew that making money from writing was going to be hard, if not impossible half the time. Weirdly that didn't deter me. Even if I had a time machine now and I could go back and tell myself that I'd never earn much from writing, my guess I'd ignore the advice. Writer, artist, actor, dancer...you know it's stupid, you know you'll probably be poor all your life, but you still do it because there's that chance you'll make it, even if just briefly.
So yes, future generations will go into debt. They still study something that will not guarantee them a living but they will be better people for the experience. (Just a tad bitter). The real issue is to make sure you go to a first rate University or College. I've worked in places that really shouldn't exist, seen courses taught by people who don't know what the hell they are doing and giving suspect advice and their respect for students nil. How the hell an eighteen year old kid can find out 'staff attitude' and the success stories of the department you are aiming for will be tough. But find out you must, because £30-40 grand is a lot of debt and you want to be in the best place with the best chances and connections. And if you can't get in? Find a private course or go abroad. Don't compromise. There's some terrific Universities in Holland and Canada or Australia for example that have international respect.
Yes, I think some UK institutions will go to the wall and to be frank will deserve to. A list of Universities and Colleges at risk appeared on UCU website this week.
(It seems to list every place I ever taught at, but some, like Falmouth Univesity College for example, is in fact excellent and it would be a tragedy if it went under). The best will survive and actually students will never regret taking art history or whatever, because guess what, knowledge and confidence is everything in the real labour market. Those who know the past can shape the future. Others, as we see on TV will riot.
Nevertheless I think we need to examine what attracts American students to the arts programmes in their Universities (at fees way higher than our own) and what careers they carve out for themselves. We need to do a lot of research in this area to focus our minds on what we in the UK provide by way of an education in the arts, what skillsets we give the students and really beef up the enterprise/career shaping side of the equation - embed it really early on so the students are thinking right from the word go about turning their skills into money. If we don't, if we just ignore it and pretend we live in some mythical 18th Century knowledge for knowledge's sake and dashing off the odd poem will see you through - we will collapse into redundancy.
We need not fear the fee's rising, but we do need to revist every single unit we teach, the people teaching them and sharpen our career development tools and yes, encourage the students to be running real time creative projects - that could have income potential. Apps.101 perhaps. One idea is that we abandon time based degrees and sell each unit as stand alone courses that empower people and give them marketable skills. They can accumulate these units as and when they can afford them and when they have enough - they have a degree. This way they wouldn't have to wait to get a job but grab new practical skills as and when they needed them, often funded by an employer. The University would become a skill provider and essential part of the community. It's an idea and it works in some institutions in Canada and America. Think on it. A fast track one year Dip HE in Publishing, perhaps part provided by the Uni and part provided by potential employers who could be involved in curriculum design. I wonder what the resistance to that kind of thing would be?
We have to think about it because one day there won't be those jobs teaching English in China for our graduates who can't get a job in the Arts and then what will they do? (Aside from write a bestseller that is).
© Sam North - Editor Dec 8th 2010
author of Mean Tide