Sunday 30 November 2008

What is going on at Glasgow School of Art?

Mammogram magazine is a great format to help improve communication between students within the art school and help to get us all organised. In the current issue there is an article titled 'Whats going on in the art school'. This article encapsulates the growing need for a unified voice to get ourselves heard by the management that are, at present, detached from the students that their choices eventually affect as well as bringing 2 tutors views too the table. Here is the article for you to read if you haven't been able to get hold of the second issue of the magazine:

What is going on in the Art School?

There is, although I usually try not to admit it, a small sense of pride in being part of the Art School. As places go, there's definitely a brilliant range of characters. But by the end of last year, I started to think that something was missing. It's not that we're not political, or that we don't care. It just seems that there isn't (or if there is, I haven't found it) a space in which students can come together to voice their opinions.

Last year we experienced the closure of the Ceramics Department. This year technicians and other valuable members of staff have been made redundant. We've been told that the School has to cut corners to cover the cost of electricity and gas bills. Fair enough. But I think it's important that we know what's going on at the School and have a chance to participate in the internal politics of the GSA. It's quite naïve, but I see this place as a bit of a haven. We're working in relatively free time, in subjects that we're interested in. For me it's a bit of a shock to realize that decisions concerning our courses can be made by people or circumstances outside the immediate framework and without the input even without informing those it concerns, among others, namely, us, the students.

An Interview with Ray McKenzie

M. In three years the bulldozers will arrive and everything apart from the Mac will be resituated in one new building on Renfrew Street. How do you feel about this?

R.M. The Mac will still be the focus of the campus. 50 million pounds have been secured for the new building, so we now have to come up with the designs and get planning permission. One option is to demolish everything on the other side of the road: the student union, the Newbury tower and the Foulis building. They haven't made up their minds yet whether to keep the Foulis, and it will be a major decision because they did a lot of work on it recently.

There's no need for anxiety about changing the campus. It will be a vast improvement. One of the arguments was, that with the School campus being as dispersed as it is now, in the long run it will cost us more money if we don't invest in major improvements now.

In any case, I'll be long gone and you'll be long gone by the time its finished in 2014. But it's a move that's got to be made. What kind of impact this is going to make on the student experience is worth thinking about. I can only speak for myself, but this [the Mac] is an incredible building, and I can't imagine a more stimulating architectural environment to work in. All the more recent buildings feel like municipal architecture -- soulless, bland corridors and little white boxes as studios. It's hard to stimulate an art school ethos in a place that looks like that.

M. How do you feel about all the tourists coming into the Mac and the extension of the museum?

R.M. It's a serious problem, but I don't want to be too critical. Some of the choices that were made recently are intelligent. We get a lot of money through tourism and some would even say because the Mackintosh is so revered in the history of architecture, the world has got a right to see it. It's a question of balance. If you're in the Mackintosh Library, the tourists are very intrusive, but in some ways this is the price we have to pay for working in such a brilliant building. There will also be the Visitor Centre in the new building, so there'll be less disruption. It shouldn't intrude on student life too much, but we will always have to make compromises.

M. How do you think the art school changed in the time that you've worked here?

R.M. Oh, now I'm being cast in the role of the oldest guy in the place! It's definitely changed for the better, though it seems to me that some of the changes have been less desirable. Most obviously, the school is bigger now. I started in 1976 and that was the tail end of a period when everybody knew everybody. Now I go to staff meetings and half the people I've never seen before. My biggest complaint is that our educational goals are coming after purely managerial considerations. Obviously there has to be management, but we have gradually become managerially top-heavy, and that is not necessarily a good thing.

The party line you'll get from management is that they're here to support teaching. But now jobs are on the line, and one by one we're loosing academic staff. It's a process of attrition - a lecturer here, a technician there - and suddenly we find the undergraduate programme has deteriorated. Two or three years ago there was a document that gave a breakdown of staff statistics, and for the first time there was more non-academic staff than academic staff. That seemed to indicate a shift in the priorities of the school. Undergraduate teaching has become a second-class activity under-staffed, under-resourced and working in an environment where water dripping through the roof is something that has to be put up with as a matter of routine.

M. Does the teaching staff have any power?

R.M. Well, they ought to. We have our own staff union. Until recently we were members of Educational Institution of Scotland (EIS). We felt that they weren't doing as much as they could for us, so a huge bunch resigned and joined the University and Colleges Union (UCU). In doing that we are not the recognized union for the school. Even though the EIS is tiny, it is still the official union. A couple of years ago we had a dispute where we boycotted any marking during degree time. We'd done the marking but withheld the results. In the end we got a pay rise linked to the Retail Price Index (RPI), which has drastically increased, and that has put another strain on the School. With the increase in bills this has been a bit of a double whammy for the school.

M. How do you think students could gain more political initiative?

R.M. It's really difficult because it's part of the post-Thatcher legacy that seems to have induced an amount of apathy. About 15 years ago there was a guy called Richard Jobson, he's a broadcaster now. He had already achieved minor celebrity as a member of Scotland's only punk band, from Dundee, I think, called The Skids. Now he's a broadcaster and cultural 'commentator'. Anyway, at that time he made a film in which he said: "I'm going round interviewing people to find out what gets young people out of their beds, and I have to report there's not much evidence there." He looked at it squarely in this Thatcherite context. Dismantling of industry, privatisation of education, and all the rest. He came to the School and interviewed students in the Vic, and somehow managed to present them in a way that confirmed his view that the dominant mood in the student population today is apathy - that Thatcher did such a good job of dismantling the social cohesion that used to energise people to take action, that people now just shrug and say: 'We can't change anything - what's the point in trying. We just want to get on and get our degrees, and to hell with everyone else.' I was livid when I saw how he had twisted the interviews to prove his point, and yet in some ways he was right. We are still living with the Thatcher legacy and all the damage it has done to education and community and all the old ideas of political empowerment. But there are student who refuse to accept it and these are the ones we should be supporting.

An interview with Tanya Eccleston

Tanya teaches fourth year Sculpture and Environmental Art as well as being the Programme Leader for the BA (Hons) Fine Art .

M. What are the problems that the art school faces at the moment? There's been a lot of talk recently about financial difficulties.

T.E. The economic issues are what every school is facing right now. The way in which those issues are handled is a political question - there is clearly a drive towards a more modular form of teaching based on both economic pressure and the imperative to allow more student choice in their course of study. Most UK students can choose their pathway through fine art and get their degree by choosing short, 'modular' courses as they go along, ending up with a 'portfolio' of subjects rather than the one. At this art school, once you sign up to a subject like sculpture, you will usually stay there. By opening up the departments and schools to all our students the politics and pedagogy in the institution will shift dramatically.

Financially, the UK's higher education system is dependent on overseas students coming here to study because overseas students bring in a lot more money than home or EU students - about 9000 pounds a year each. The global economic downturn is having a huge impact on students coming to study here from overseas, with many countries now importing courses from the West, which can be more beneficial and financially realistic for students who want to undertake UK programmes and courses.

It seems that a lot of money is spent on management and increasingly less on the actual delivery of education. Postgraduate courses are a priority because they attract overseas students. So at this time, the management's focus is directed towards postgraduates and the new building. As a consequence, undergraduate teachers are feeling overwhelmed by work and concerned that the standard of teaching in the BA will be affected in the long term.

M. What is the financial situation at the moment?

T.E. The school is broke - the gas bill has gone up 93 per cent, the electricity by 44 percent. The Barnes building is a big leaky ship and costs a lot to heat. Add to this the pay rises awarded after the AUT industrial action a few years ago and these rises will have a significant impact on what we can't and can deliver to students. So, in my position as programme leader, you are given your allocated budget and told that you have to save (cut) by a certain amount. You try to protect teaching staff first, so students get as much provision as possible. Things like the Friday Event are vulnerable because they are extra curricular and expensive. We're about to find out what our actual budget is next week. Then we will need to decide where to save. Firstly we will look at our learning and teaching, or 'consumables' budgets for savings, and then if we can't save enough there we will need to face the prospect of further staff losses.

We had a staff briefing the other day about the 'savings programme'. I still don't believe there is a programme as such. The Director says she is committed to protecting teaching staff and therefore students from the impact of these financial shortfalls in our funding but that hasn't been Fine Art's experience so far. Loss of academic and technical staff is the primary thing that affects students the most: the loss of attention, loss of curriculum, loss of opportunity that comes with less staff has grave implications for the quality of what we can provide students.

M. Following on from that, what do you see as the most important issues at the GSA in the coming years?

T.E. The question is, what is the plan B for the old buildings until the new building is ready? How is the school going to look after the buildings it has in the meantime? How will it be able sustain the inadequate but necessary learning environment we have now? What are the school's priorities in this regard? The other most important issue in my opinion is how the breaking up of the subject-led departments into a more modular structure of teaching will affect the quality of students' learning experience. Some choice is well overdue, but it is also important to recognize what is lost by widening the range of courses available. Just how much choice do you have before the only choice students have is to choose - at what point will the balance be tipped - when will you lose the opportunity to learn deeply and well, your discipline of choice?

M. How is the mood among the staff?

T.E. A lot of staff are upset at the moment. We feel that the management has not been strategic or prudent enough in these last years. It's not clear to us how money is spent and how the priorities of the school are supported financially. There's a strategic plan for the school that is very ambitious but doesn't seem to really nourish the undergraduate and its values - values such as community, access and skill acquisition. The School's reputation is built on the undergraduate courses, but I'm worried about our programme. Everyone is working really hard and they're exhausted. The strategic plan seems to put brand and economic viability before values that are recognizably ours.

M. What do you think the students can do?

T.E. You need to ask the management the right questions. The key thing for students is that whatever management, and that includes me, come up with in terms of savings, you should still get the same out of your course. Don't suffer loss of quality at any level of your education. Ask yourselves: what is it you value about your course? Then fight for it tooth and nail. If you want staff time, better workshops, more feedback, better access, than tell it like it is again and again. Right now the management is fighting on your behalf for something called 'student choice' which sounds very supportive, and is in some important. But it is also a way of dividing up the student body and its collective identity, separating you off into 'suites' of courses that are delivered as classes with single tutors, 'allowing' you to piece together your education as a 'portfolio of learning choices'.

Student choice, as higher education in the UK seems to understand it, can seriously undermine your ability to sink deep into a subject. If I were cynical I would warn you that student choice is much cheaper to deliver, frees up dedicated studios and working space, separates staff and student bodies from each other and makes a more pliant staff body for management to manage.

We may be broke, but we have each other. Students learn here because they come to school -- there's possibly no other school that demands as much presence in the studios as we do, and it makes our students good at what they do. Brilliant actually. I don't believe learning is about shopping, it's about depth, and the hardest thing is trying to protect that capacity for depth in learning, which means protecting un-structured, but directed learning time - something you don't get so much of in art schools across the country these days. Continuity in terms of staffing is important too: knowing someone over a period of years really helps in terms of learning. Mostly, that's gone in higher education in the UK, but we're hanging on to it here.

For how much longer I can't tell you. If we begin to deliver modules instead of subjects, teachers will begin to forget student names. It's not impossible that in time and in a thoroughly divided but economically viable art school, you'll forget each other's names. We're being run like a business because we're broke, but actually we're not a just a business, we're an educational culture and nobody seems to be looking after the culture except the teachers, and they don't have power, but you student's do!


Creative Scotland is the proposed merger of the public bodies, the Scottish Arts Council, Scottish Screen, and Scottish Cultural Enterprise, into a private company. Culture Minister, Linda Fabiani, recently insisted of Creative Scotland: "We all want to get this up and running." In truth, this apparent urgency conceals a major ideological fault line between public and private provision in Scotland.

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