In May 2013, AE director Neil Griffiths joined Johnny Vegas, Bob and Roberta Smith, Suzanne Moore and a host of experts at Central Saint Martins to issue a call to break down the barriers that are restricting art education to an elite. This is what he said.
I’ll begin by quoting the principal of our first partner further education college, ‘The pressure of university tuition fees and an escalating premium on top jobs mean that our students will tempted to play safe. It is likely that they will opt for apparently “useful” or more work-related degrees. As our students are often from families with no history of higher education, there is no countervailing pressure at home.’
With the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which was a vicious attack on the aspirations of young people in some of the poorest parts of society, and the raising of the bar to £9,000 a year in so many of our universities, I genuinely don’t think it hyperbole to say that nothing less than a national fight for the working-class ability to think critically is underway. It is vital we ensure the arts do not become seen as a luxury for those that are free from the kinds of pressures and material, structural or cultural disadvantages I’ve touched on here.
In addition to the huge debt now facing undergraduates, there is negativity from peers (I certainly faced this coming from a very working class area), there’s the employability issue and anxiety around that, a lack of investment and interest in certain academic areas, existing prejudice and stereotypes to overcome. There is this vague but stymieing idea of what is useful in the ‘real world’. There is a pre-existent attainment gap between people of different class, ethnicity and gender that is the result of centuries of inequality. It’s a really toxic mix of pressures and considerations to heap on young insecure shoulders at such a critical time in their development.
On top of all that you have a dominant value system in education now which really appears as if it’s completely geared towards short-term profit, geared towards the needs of industry in a post-industrial society. That means the teaching grant for arts and humanities in higher education is abolished. At the same time arts and design are side-lined in secondary education meaning that in a market dynamic of supply and demand these subjects become very vulnerable due to a lack of demand. The more students deterred from studying the arts in university, the less opportunity there will be for others to do so – it’s pretty toxic and this doesn’t seem like a productive way – in an evolutionary sense ultimately – for us as a species to carry on let alone one nation.
Quite simply, these subjects we consider the arts, are appropriate for some people, and not others. You heard it from all kinds of people throughout the New Labour era – that the 50% target for students going to university was excessive, it was inappropriate, because university just isn’t for everyone. Would the kids from the estates even enjoy it? Shouldn’t they just be doing apprenticeships? That is good old fashioned prejudice and snobbery and I fear many people in positions of power still suffer from such ailments.
We live in a country where politics, media and many key professions are largely dominated by public school alumni, I recently heard the current coalition front benches described as a CHUMOCRACY I think that was Peter Pickles too, hardly a man wanting for privilege. Well in that situation, with vast and myriad inequalities of wealth, opportunity, knowledge and access to education across the intersectional spectrum of non-establishment people, before you know it the type of discourse that we have, the diversity in mainstream culture (which crucially is where the majority of us learn about the world and the politics of difference) and therefore the public discourse that follows from that, is really narrow.
It seems now that vast swathes of the population have been incentivized to disengage from studying the human condition in one form or another, which is a really basic right, surely? Any education system should – I wouldn’t go so far to say should be rooted in that, and that alone – but it should certainly take account of that in more than a superficial way. It would be difficult to argue that the education system shouldn’t produce people that are useful to society, so what you’re really talking about is what sort of society do you want? What sort of society do we have? And that’s the divide.
The issue we’re facing is this: we have a government in which nearly 50% of that cabinet have Bachelor of Arts degrees of one type or another yet they appear to be screwing it up for everyone else. They’re emphasising the fact that for some people culture is a luxury, something that you can afford to do. We say everyone should have the right to study the human condition, everyone SHOULD study the human condition, everyone must have a voice otherwise those that don’t slowly cease to exist in the mind of power and that’s such a dangerous proposition.
It’s not apathy that leads to disengagement with education >> Students we meet have millions of things they want to do. They’re bright, optimistic, positive, really keen, smart – but often have a lack of opportunities to even explore their options properly. A heavy hand is being laid on this spring of enthusiasm right now. Young people are full of dreams but for those without privilege, it seems more sensible or more “realistic” to give up on certain possibilities before they even get to go to university or B-Tech or other qualifications in drama or whatever interest it is they have. They’re stopping before they seriously pursue such pursuits because these things aren’t taken seriously, because they’re not obviously profitable or sensible. That’s a tragedy for those that can’t afford the seeming luxury of an arts education.
To quote one of our patrons, Stewart Lee, “the very people being deterred by these costs are just the sort of independent minds we used to value as a society; the same people now, demonstrably, priced out of further education. It’s another example of the erosion of access, the reversal of social mobility, the entrenchment of privilege, and the gradual silencing of diverse voices”
The arts in education produces great citizens. They come out and they might specialise in something that seems obscure and not even obliquely related to everyday life but they are able to use these humane skills in social situations. And they’re hugely valuable citizens to have for a certain kind of society, especially in a democracy where expression and critical thought should really be valued highly. You might question whether or not our particular type of society is one which wants or requires many people like that, whether it needs people like that. And if it does not, then what next?
It feels as though at the moment we’re looking at the two very different value systems in both education and society at large. We’ve got the utilitarian, and the artistic or as I call it, the humane.
One approach to education treats the human being as the end, and the other treats it as the means. It seems to me, as a lay-person, that people being the means to an end is becoming more prevalent.
You see this in the way we are justifying higher education in terms of economics. Humanity itself is too quickly judged on its use value. And in terms of change, if you are interested in making the world a better place through education, you can’t start with a production line mentality.
They’re big things to talk about when you start by talking about connecting young people who have interests with ways of pursuing those interests, but that’s the absolute example – this is a huge issue which resonates in every aspect of our lives. We’re starting at that level because that’s where we want change to happen, at the individual subjective level. We don’t want to do the work for young people, we just want them to feel as entitled as anyone else to do what it is they want with their lives.
Specifically, what Arts Emergency wants to do, as another patron, the artist Jake Chapman puts it, is to “create privilege for people without privilege that people with privilege can’t have.”
As such we have sought to replicate the benefits of a network of entrenched privilege by creating our own alternative old boy network, within which we already have over 200 contacts working in TV, film, music, art, academia, law, architecture, activism, comedy, journalism, publishing, fashion, design and even some scientists.
At the heart of the network is a pilot mentoring programme that we’ve launched in Hackney and currently holds 42 students and mentors as well as a further 200 contacts for those students to meet if/when they wish. We work with young people in non-selective further education [16-19yrs], young people from a range of backgrounds who don’t have the contacts, confidence or the insider knowledge to know what areas of interest to focus on, how to break in to university or the creative industries, how high to aim, who to talk to, what to do to get where they really want to be.
It is the help we get when we need that bit of support and direction to be able to do the things we want to do that is so vital on an individual level and what we at Arts Emergency have created is a very open collective for people who want to share some privilege and give some connections and confidence to the next generation.
We want to empower as many young people as we can to seriously pursue a dream, and not an abstract X-Factor style dream of fame and fortune, because there’s too much of that as well and it feels like people understandably in the current climate. want to take a leap out of their existence, a magical, Alice-in-Wonderland sort of jump out of where or who they are. We’re trying to realistically show that you can go for these impossible things, it’s worth trying but here is how, and here is something else you might love too.
We want to pierce the façade of the establishment and let flow the enthusiasm, pent-up energy and creativity of a new generation that we genuinely believe will make the world a better place.