Opinion: C P Snow Revisited?

Recently Higher Education has been in the news not only because of the debate around fees, and whether the state or the individual who benefits from the education should pay, but also because of the funding regime being proposed which focuses future government funding on the STEM subjects. This emphasis demonstrates a belief that some courses are more economically beneficial something, which I believe drives more fundamentally to the heart of what and who higher education is for. And it is this debate, which, I believe the media and commentators are failing to comment on. The dangers of the divide between Arts and Science was a warning highlighted by CP Snow some 50 years ago, are we falling into the same trap?

Some years ago I completed a programme of research into the changes in Higher Education and their impact on Fine Art. My premise was that if I researched the implications of these changes into a subject such as fine art education, which is inherently concerned with the development of an individual vision and ability to express that externally, I would be able to draw a number of conclusions that would support art and design education more broadly. The aim was to have an overall premise that would enable art and design, to move forward, to both embrace the changes but also protect and develop its particular characteristics of creativity, expression, analysis and communication, qualities that I passionately believe benefit a 21st century society. I believe that art and design is the pertinent and relevant subject for our cultural, economic and social futures and an education in this area provides a whole range of skills and opportunities that graduates are to benefit from throughout their careers.

This research demonstrated, that there are problems for a creative, practical and innovative subject in adjusting to the demands a mass system of Higher Education, and that there was a complex and challenging fine art education environment. There was concern that the sector could produce increased numbers of fine art graduates who were ill-prepared for life after college but there was a strong sense that new methods of teaching and learning, investment in the infrastructure, closer relationships with external agencies and greater clarity about what opportunities were available upon graduation would enable the sector to adjust, meet these challenges and position itself for the future.

Since this research was completed many of the pressures have remained, but the art and design sector, not just fine art, has adjusted and courses have developed a range of teaching and learning strategies to better support students, there has been investment in courses and buildings by institutions and the opportunities for students upon graduation have been extended, something that has benefited UKplc with the vibrant arts scene, dynamic and world leading creative industries. Nevertheless the requirements for accountability by Government, students, parents and society more broadly, have increased. Students consistently score art and design courses at the bottom of the National Student Survey. They are not happy with the way we organise courses, provide assessment and feedback and support them academically: their overall satisfaction with their courses is low. Somewhere, somehow we have failed to clearly articulate the complexity of working in the creative and cultural arenas. We have accepted students onto programmes who recognise the benefits and want the opportunities of working in these dynamic areas. They have wanted the chance to study in a way that is gong to challenge their intellectual, creative and making skills – be that as a photographer, sculptor, fashion designer, animator or illustrator. But although these students have been attracted to courses where communication, visual identity, and creativity are at the heart courses and institutions have failed to support and communicate clearly enough to them, the complexity of the world they wish to operate in. We have failed to make it clear that unlike many subjects this is a journey that you undertake throughout your creative career, whatever the discipline, and that it is inherently bound up with your own personal creative development and that the education is just the first step. My concern is that we have also failed to sufficiently articulate the benefits and nature of this learning process and its application throughout a lifetime of working to other external agencies which is why we are also being challenged with an approach to funding that undermines the value of the creative sector by emphasising only STEM subjects.

The concept of the journey, both external and internal, is at the heart of the creative education. Openness, flexibility, curiosity and the idea that for every choice or decision made, an equally interesting, difficult or adventurous option could have been taken is the challenge and motivation. There are myriad ways to reach the destination, to find a solution. This flexibility develops the ability to test constantly the ultimate goals: giving the chance to respond to the multiple opportunities offered without losing sight of the end of the creative journey and what it should achieve. Exploring these multiple chances is at the heart of a creative career. A hunger for experimentation and knowledge is critical and pertinent to any area of the arts and education. Pushing the boundaries of the disciplines, challenging existing knowledge and conventions is critical.

This is where I believe an art and design education is so critical for the 21st century and that focussing solely on the STEM subjects fails to recognise the particular nature and value of the creative subjects. Their mix of technical, practical, expressive, investigative and technological methods has been recognised by many in the scientific and engineering communities. Medics regularly work with artists and designers in the development and application of treatments- and I don’t mean in terms of therapy. The great challenges facing the 21st century of climate change, water shortage, increasing populations and shrinking resources are also the great opportunities for industry and economies across the world. C P Snow’s thesis was that we needed greater discipline co-operation to tackle the challenge of food and poverty across the world and he felt that education had a critical role to play in this. The UK has always had a Higher Education sector that has set the benchmark across the disciplines, my research had also demonstrated how capable and able disciplines are at responding to challenges that are laid before them. At a time when disciplines are moving closer together and many industries and thinkers are recognising the benefits for collaborations across the science, technological and art and design sectors, so we don’t need these advances to be undermined by an emphasis by Government or society on one area only. Fifty years ago CP Snow was warning us of just such an approach and at this point in our we need to capitalise on what we have achieved so far.

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