In this week’s Spectator Miru Ratnam suggests making some radical changes in the UK’s art school system

“The maths is fairly straightforward; up to now every undergraduate art student has come with just over £7,000 of cash, £3,224 in the form of an up-front loan to pay tuition fees and a second chunk of £3,947 from government (via the Higher Education Funding Council for England) that under the Browne Review’s proposals will disappear. Without that second chunk of money the question is obvious: why should art schools bother with the current university system?

The field seems open for new for-profit providers to develop art schools which wouldn’t necessarily have to involve three-year courses but might offer more intensive two-year degrees where students are eligible to receive the preferential loans open to other university students (this model is operated by Britain’s first private university, the University of Buckingham). Another alternative would be to ditch the degree entirely and the largely unwanted components it brings with it, such as the need for a dissertation, and provide an education that fits with the conceptual openness of contemporary practice.”

Yet the experience of Stoke-on-Trent’s Frink School of Figurative Sculpture doesn’t seem to hold out a lot of hope for such models. This was a highly professional and well-run and staffed artisan institution, yet it closed. If an institution with the Frink brand name, cheap and large premises in an old pottery factory, brilliant international-level teachers, a central easily-accessed location with a low cost of living, and surrounded by affluent areas (Cheshire, the Peak, Stafford, Manchester, Lichfield), can’t attract enough paying students during the boom years of municipal and private sculpture — then what hope for such a school in the current climate?

And throwing the dissertation overboard could entail some serious risks, most especially risks to the life-chances of graduates who don’t go on to take a standard Masters degree in a dissertation-requiring subject (and good luck with that, if you’ve had little or no practice at writing substantial academic essays). Ditching the competently-undertaken undergraduate dissertation — especially if it takes a historical view, related to and deepening one’s creative practice — is risky for several very basic reasons. A modicum of academic work gives at least some intellectual/research/reading skills to creative students (who are sometimes reluctant or unpractised readers, in my experience). Statistics suggest the majority of a graduate cohort are unlikely to be career artists eight years after graduation, although BIAD certainly appeared to have a good general employment record circa-2005. In such circumstances, now made even more difficult by rampant youth unemployment and the coming abolition of schemes such as Creative Partnerships, the dissertation then helps to validate the degree — most usefully in the eyes of sceptical employers probing for skills at interview.

I’d like to think that the brilliant students will still ‘make it’, even after being launched with only the lightest academic veneer from the sort of institution Ratnam envisages. But then… how sad for a graduate to beaver away at becoming an assemblage artist, for instance, without knowing the life and work of Joseph Cornell? How painful to realise five years after graduating that your brilliant conceptual breakthroughs were simply ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in terms of art history? How pitiful to find one’s talent going rusty and devolving into making local ‘gift-shop art’, without ever really catching sight of the glittering landscapes of inspiration that exist in art history? Of course there will always be the lucky few Fine Art graduates who have a doting grandma to fund a practice-based Masters, and then enough talent/looks/liggery/air-miles/cash to get a toe-hold in the dizzy world of “conceptual openness of contemporary practice” at the national or international level. But even in such a rare circumstance, a good undergraduate dissertation is useful in helping a young person ‘get’ the language of the art world at more than the superficial level of ‘buzzwords’ — which may then prove vital at that critical ‘career-making moment’ when they find themselves talking to erudite and depth-seeking gallerists, dealers and collectors at the sort of crispy international event Ratnam depicts at the end of his article. I’d suggest that the traditional ‘crit’ sessions, done in the sort of new artisanal institution Ratnam envisages, would not be enough to equip a young person for such an early-career encounter.

Ratnam also mentions that…

“one of the functions of the Browne Review is to soften up arts and humanities for ‘new providers’, a phrase that David Willetts has recently taken to repeating”

But could this refer more to the one-size-fits-all services of the big U.S. distance-learning conglomerates, than to the sort of free-wheeling anarchic art-schools we so productively had in the 1970s?

The other problem with Ratnam’s article is that it (rather ideologically, I’d suggest) leads the casual Speccie reader to assume that ‘art school’ is a term interchangeable with ‘art and design schools’. Yet Fine Art is only one strand in a very rich weave of degree courses in such places. To assume that the same economic solution can be applied to both… risks doing long-term damage to the UK’s wider creative industries.