The closure of the degree course in contemporary crafts at Falmouth University was the highest profile closure since the demise of Dartington College of Arts. Crafts and Fine Art were the founding subjects of the Falmouth School of Art which became Falmouth University following the merger and relocation of Dartington.
The widespread protests against the closure demonstrated the course’s high standing and international reputation. The reasons for closure were supposedly economic as reported in ‘The Times Higher’ on the 4th December 2014 and satirised there a week later in Laurie Taylor’s Poppletonian quoting Falmouth University’s senior deputy Vice Chancellor Geoff Smith who cited ‘heavy space utilisation’. Contemporary Crafts was one of three undergraduate courses being closed, the others being Digital Media and Theatre. The message from the Vice-Chancellor’s office explained that:
“Each of our current courses was considered against a range of metrics such as enrollment trends, market share, financial profile, graduate employment statistics and National Student Survey scores. All of these factors – external and internal, quantitative and qualitative – were combined and carefully considered in order to deliver the project’s conclusions.”
The conclusions do not consider their artistic and economic contribution to the region, the development of research for the University (which is also being restructured), their intrinsic educational, critical and artistic value or the impact of closure on staff or student well-being.
There have been other course closures (though these did not gain as much attention as contemporary crafts) but were as significant. Since 2010, Falmouth’s Vice Chancellor has closed or suspended ten undergraduate and twelve post-graduate courses, (not including the Dartington taught masters programme, which ended in 2010 with fifty students receiving MAs). The MA Fine Art: Contemporary Practice, for which I was the coordinator, was closed a year ago and the MFA which was meant to replace it has been recently ‘suspended’. The ‘range of metrics’ was used selectively in order to give rationale and to keep within employment law and make particular staff redundant. Since 2009 the University has been restructured three times. Between 2010 and 2014 there have been twenty-three academic redundancies, including myself but excluding Dartington staff not relocating to Falmouth. A similar number is expected over the current academic year. Additionally the two deans, six associate deans, the director of research, four (of six) heads of department and a pro-vice-chancellor have left ‘voluntarily’ or been made redundant. This is during a period of increasing student numbers. Of staff who are losing or have lost their jobs, around two-thirds were over fifty-five and at least six were University and College Union branch officers. Although new academic staff have been appointed, these have mainly been young, on lower incomes or as ‘associate lecturers’ – hourly paid, zero-hours contract, but no guaranteed hours. When I stated that a University’s purpose was the creation and dissemination of knowledge by way of education, research and practice for public, social and artistic benefit, the Vice Chancellor Anne Carlisle replied “You are working for the wrong University”. In fact in a number of internal publications the Vice Chancellor has indicated a move to an academic portfolio “that is better able to advance our ‘Top 50’ ambitions and that speaks of our continuing journey from an ‘Art School’ to a globally-oriented Creative Innovation Hub”. A hub doesn’t sound much like a university either. The same document also proposed new Schools including ‘The Real Business School’ and ‘The Games Academy’ which gives an indication as to where the University is heading.
The main device at Falmouth University for ascertaining the continuance or cessation of courses is ‘financial convergence’. Heads of department are given budgets based on the student fees for each individual course they are responsible for. From these budgets they are expected to pay for all teaching, technical and administrative staffing, technical facilities, space, materials and other on-costs for each separate course.
“The need for convergence to be achieved over the period of the 2012-17 Strategic Plan. This means that in a 9k fixed fee environment those programmes that incur higher expenditure need to develop business plans to achieve the median (convergence) point in order that they are not indirectly being cross-subsidised by other programmes and other fee-paying students.” (Falmouth University Vice-Chancellor’s Breakfast Briefing 21st November 2013)
This ‘convergence’ point is 50%, if a course costs more than 60% it would then be at risk of cessation. If a course costs less than 50% it would produce ‘profit’ that could then be kept. The fact that different courses have different requirements is of no relevance. A ‘chalk & talk’ course needs no space, technical facilities or technicians (IT, student services and classrooms being provided centrallmouth and Exeter Universities). A practical course requires studios, technical facilities etc. all of which are ‘costed’ and have to be budgeted for, such courses are therefore more expensive. Not only does ‘financial convergence’ give reason for course closures but is being used as a tool for central control and micro-management.
This financial model makes a major contribution to what has been described by Pacal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne in Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm as “the catering regime [which] is in fact the carrying out of a political ideology, i.e. that of neoliberalism”. Although universities in England are generally exempt charities and ‘not for profit’ the coalition government relaxed the rules to permit ‘for profit’ institutions to be able to apply for University status and to introduce ‘competition’. This policy introduced a competitive business model where education is turned into a commodity and students into consumers; a model that many university managers see fit to attempt to imitate and for staff and students to conform to. This is however, an imaginary model that would not last in the ‘real world’ that the self-same managers frequently refer to. In another Falmouth University ‘Breakfast Briefing’, the assistant deputy vice chancellor made a presentation that included the following points:
We will require every course at Falmouth to offer an Entrepreneurship Module developed in partnership with Falmouth Business School
All academic departments should establish an Industry Advisory Board
We will require all new course proposals to be developed in partnership with one or more high-level industrial partner
We will ensure that every course at Falmouth graduate 70% of their students at least to 2.1 or 1st degree classification
We will require all substantive teaching staff to evidence the maintenance of their professional currency and industrial connections on an annual basis.
(Alan Murray, Falmouth University Vice-Chancellor’s Breakfast Briefing 29th April 2015)
‘Requirements’ such as these are counter to university principles of academic freedom. Course structures have meaning as much as their content and as such should be under the control of academic staff in partnership with students, technical and other support staff.
Falmouth University’s Vice Chancellor is intent on changing both staff and courses (by closures, curriculum, structures and introducing new low cost courses) to create a different type of institution. Such instrumentalisation of education and managerialsim undermines creativity and critical discourse. The forthcoming government Green Paper as proposed by Jo Johnson The University Minister in Cameron’s government will include the introduction of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) that will be directly aligned to course fees while at the same time rules will be relaxed for private providers to become Universities, validate their own degrees and charge whatever fees they want. The closure of highly respected and effective courses and the loss of experienced and committed staff demonstrates a cynical disregard by those responsible. Higher Education for public benefit is under threat and has to be fought politically.
Rob Gawthrop was formally Director of Art at Dartington College of Arts and Coordinator of the MA Fine: Contemporary Practice at Falmouth University.
Volume 30 number 2 November / December 2015 pp 18-20