University, challenged.

Today I want to reflect on my time at University and weather – with the imminent roll-out of astronomical tuition fees – I would do it again or advise others to go to University.   But before we get to the main event, let me give you a little background.

From the age of 13 I was determined to go to University.  I was one of the first disabled children to attend mainstream school in the UK in the mid-80’s and it gave me a determination to ‘prove myself’ beyond high school and I wanted to go to University.  What I was trying to prove and who I was trying to prove it to is anybody’s guess – as a recipient of unconditional love from both my proud parents I didn’t exactly NEED to garner any respect or attention – but I do remember being spurred on by the sight of all my able-bodied cousins beaming down at me on their caps and gowns from my Grandparent’s mantle piece (just to be clear, these were photographs and my grandparents didn’t actually posses an industrial strength mantelpiece).

So, with that said, kindly fasten your seatbelts and be sure to keep your arms and legs inside the carpet*.  Off we go….

Fast forward 20 years and having gone straight into work from high school, then moved to another part of the country I decide that in the absence of a job (a whole other story in itself), that it was time to embark upon another course of study to stop me chewing the furniture.   I chose a Foundation Degree in Applied Art and Design because this meant I could combine my love of art, music and technology to create some interesting work.  I found a course attached to a University but based in a local college that sounded exactly right for me and enrolled.  Everything was great for a month or three until cracks in the curriculum and teaching started to show.  My first alarm bell should have gone off when the very module I wanted to explore – Lens Based Media – lost it’s one and only lecturer and she wasn’t replaced.  I was now left pretty much to my own devices to study my medium alone.  Luckily I had made friends with another student who was also concentrating on lens based media and that gave me someone I could share ideas and influences with, but it wasn’t really the same as the guidance I had received from my former tutor.  My friend was  a full time student and I was part time so in my final year I was left to explore my medium alone. This resulted in me allowing myself to be talked into changing my medium and that was the single worst mistake I made.  LESSON ONE: KNOW YOUR MIND AND STICK TO YOUR GUNS. Don’t assume that a tutor knows more than you about your medium just because they’ve got the BA/MA/Doctorate and you haven’t.

LESSON TWO: KNOW WHAT YOU’RE PAYING FOR.

The course title (‘Applied Art and Design’) had given me a certain expectation that the primary focus of this course was to build on my existing skills in a very practical sense and then teach me additional business skills I needed to make my art profitable in the real world.   However, in the second year of my course we were informed that the Business Studies element of the course would not be delivered unless we went on to study the BA ‘top up’ course.   I was not alone in being attracted to this course specifically for the business element (business studies within the context of the Art industry is different to general business studies) so my fellow students and I were understandably angry about this unexpected change to the course.  We did get a few guest lecturers who were interesting but only touched briefly on the business aspect of their practice. We did have one module centred on commissions but again business practice was not discussed in the depth which the prospectus had led me to believe it would be discussed. In short, it was not the hands-on real world experience of the artist’s JOB that the title of the course had suggested.

Now, allow me to digress slightly with a hypothetical scenario.  Say you decide to have an extension built on your house.  The builder tells you exactly what this will entail, how long the work will take and what you are paying then a few weeks into the job the builder just doesn’t turn up when you’ve agreed to re-arrange your schedule to meet with them.  When you do finally manage to locate him, he cites too much work to do on other jobs as the reason he has disrespected the agreement you had in this manner.  You’d be pretty pissed off yes?  Well now you’re a student handing over £9K a year only to find that your tutors are changing module deadlines with little or no notice (sometimes on the day an essay is due to be handed in – yes this really happened!), you turn up for lectures only to be told they are cancelled and entire steps are missed from modules because a tutor has bitten off more than they could chew and was marking work from several other courses when they should have been teaching you and marking your work.  Hands up, who’s for a refund?

And all this before we’ve ever considered the way the establishment deals with disabled students.  A compulsory element of my course was to attend trips to art Galleries in London and Cardiff.  How many trips did I go on to these locations?  Not a single one.  Despite repeatedly pointing out to ‘the powers that be’ that the coaches were not accessible for my wheelchair nothing was done to rectify the situation (but a suggestion was made that I take the train at my own expense – nobody bothered to check in with me to find out I wasn’t entitled to Disabled Students Allowance!).  I managed trips to local art galleries with the help of fellow students who had cars and were willing to give me a lift.

I can actually drive but was never sure of getting a disabled parking space on Campus due to various able-bodied people taking up spaces.  Another thing I complained about (and provided photographic evidence of) on numerous occasions that nothing was done about.  When an able-bodied member of staff (a janitor) was tackled about using disabled bays this was his response (I shit you not!): ‘No worries, when she wants the space just let me know and I’ll come and move my car’.  Anybody want to join me in banging their head on the desk right now?   I think this culture of ignorance wore me down just as much as the problems with the course itself.

Life after University

The prospectus for this particular course states the following career opportunities are available post-graduation:

Self employment as an artist/ Designer/craftsperson

Gallery/museum administration

Community-based art work

Prop making for theatre, television or animation companies.

Well, I can tell you right now that I would not be confident in any of these roles other than self-employment (I’m completely self taught in my current art practices) because the guidance I received was just not sufficient to send me off into the world of work in the Art Industry. I left that course more confused and unsure of my own abilities as an artist than I was before I started and so when I heard about the plans the University I attended had to charge ‘top whack’ in fees, it sincerely worried me that future students would be wasting their money.

However, it’s not just students wasting money that bothers me. Employers also need to know that when my CV says ‘Foundation Degree in Applied Art and Design’ that they are getting somebody who knows their arse from their elbow in that particular subject!  Poor quality courses and tuition don’t just cheat the student, they cheat employers too. It’s reasonable for both parties to expect that having a degree means a person possesses a certain standard of competency in that subject.   Hiring someone who’s got it on paper but can’t actually do the job properly is bad for the employer, who has to cut them loose and bad for the former employee who is now looking for a job!

I was lucky enough to have been able to get a Local Education Authority grant (I gather these may also be scrapped) when I did my course, but had I been forced to pay for my three years at University, right now I’d be asking for my money back.  Had I been able to pay I would have had no problem with the principle, but I am very aware that this would also make me a CUSTOMER of the University and as such those paying for the services they deliver have a right to expect good value for money. People who NEED degrees to have a career like doctors have even more right to demand reasonable rates and good value for money from their Universities.

So, is University really all it’s cracked up to be?   When I sit and think about what a University education really meant for me, I can’t actually say it enriched me on a personal level, and I certainly didn’t learn anything I couldn’t teach myself (and in fact I did exactly that on more than one occasion!).   Although I did learn from looking at some of my tutors that you can spend many, many years in academia and still be as dumb as a box of bricks!

If I had that time over again, I can think of cheaper and more enriching ways to learn what I needed to know.  I’m still involved in art but in a totally different way. It’s taken me precisely 9 months to teach myself a new discipline and build up the confidence to seriously consider turning my art into a business.    My University, despite what the brochure said, failed to accomplish this in three years of study.

As I said before, there are some careers for which a degree is the ONLY way you’ll get your foot in the door so for those people I’d like to offer the following advice when choosing a University:

  • Make sure what YOU expect to get out of the course is what will actually be delivered to you.  If having discussed your needs and expectations with the course manager or head of faculty you realise that it won’t meet your needs then look elsewhere – Universities are now a business. You are the customer and they are not doing you any favours so make sure you are getting value for money and if you are in any doubt of this then take your business elsewhere.  9K is a hell of a lot of money to spend (or a lot of debt to acquire) if your course isn’t going to provide you with the skills and guidance you need.
  • If you are disabled, ASK ABOUT THEIR POLICY FOR DISABALED STUDENTS.  Are any areas of the college or aspects of the curriculum that disabled students may have problems accessing?  If you are given a tour of the University seek out disabled students and ask them what their experience is of staff attitudes to inclusion.  I actually advised a prospective student with a disability not to study at my university because I felt their attitude was so bad and I didn’t want her to suffer the same disappointment and frustration that I had.
  • Talk to former students of the course you are thinking of joining.  Ask them how they enjoyed the experience and weather the knowledge they came out with actually matched their expectations when they started.
  • Ask what happened to the students who graduated from your prospective course.  Did they get jobs? Become self employed? Continue their studies?

I hope the retelling of my experiences here is of some use to you and if you’d like to add this blog as a ‘guest’ post to your readership then please get in touch with me.  The more of you who are willing to challenge Universities on exactly what you’re getting for your money the better off you’ll all be.

*If you don’t recognise that quote, you don’t watch enough Disney movies.

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5 thoughts on “University, challenged.

  1. This is great advice for prospective students. Interviewing prospective employees in the field you hope to gain employment in is also highly recommended. Most University faculty are teaching precisely because they did not thrive in the field, and are not particularly knowledgable about what it entails. I don’t mean that as a put-down of teachers or academia, because I think they fulfill a very important role in any profession. However, for most creative professions the teaching track is a world away from the professional track.

    1. Sofie, it’s like you knew my tutors! Haha. When we had professionals in to give guest lectures the things they said were often completely opposite to what our tutors where telling us and when we probed our tutors further about what they had actually sold in terms of their own art the answer was ‘not a lot’! Completely up their own butts and not in touch with the average ‘bread and butter’ customer at all.

      I remember on particular guest lecturer who started the lecture by saying ‘I got chucked out of Uni three times and unless you want to teach, you don’t really need to be here – go out and just DO IT’. The tutors were mortified.

    1. Thank you Ross :). Yes, I deliberately resurrected it to catch the eye of any people contemplating Uni. I really feel strongly that University educations are being sold as the ‘be all and end all’ and sometimes it isn’t, unless of course you want to be a doctor or a similar profession that means you must go to university.

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