Design education at university level is like a slightly wonky triangle. It has lots of students at one point, far fewer tutors at another, and what academia likes to call 'industry' at the third. Each looks for something different, but each is dependent on the other to find it.
Today, there are others in this relationship too – government, university authorities, student loan providers, technicians, administrators, even parents.
Hovering over all of these groups is the storm cloud of tuition fees. Introduced in the UK in 1998, and initially set at £1,000 a year, they have since risen to £9,000 per annum. In other words, what was once free is now eye-wateringly expensive, and a new marketplace logic permeates all aspects of higher education.
As a consequence of fees and a world changing at supernova speed, design education is going through a tumultuous period of internal and external scrutiny. Nothing new in that, you might say. But this soul-searching has triggered numerous questions.
Is it worth it?
What is the validity of studying a discipline at great expense that many claim can only ever be learned in a professional studio setting? Are there alternatives to three or four years of formal study within an academic institution?
What is the point of creating thinkers and practitioners when huge numbers of employers can only offer graduates low paid, or worse, unpaid internships? Are graduates under-qualified – or perhaps over-qualified – for the current job market?
At first glance, it looks as if no one is happy in our triangle of education. Students complain about fees, poor student/tutor ratios, and bleak job prospects; teachers protest about increased workloads and the commercialisation of education; and employers grumble that students are ill-equipped for the sink-or-swim nature of commercial life.
Looked at from another angle, however, a different picture emerges. Students are exposed to standards of teaching far more sophisticated than in past decades, when the only design pedagogy was the Bauhaus model with its near-exclusive emphasis on form, colour, studio craft and 'learning by doing'.
For teachers, tuition fees have brought improved teaching frameworks. So what is the true state of modern undergraduate education?
University applications on the rise
There's certainly no lack of students. The Guardian recently reported that university applications for this coming year are up by 4 per cent.
The number of people studying creative arts and design in the UK, in the latest figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (2012/13) stands at 157,955. That's more than the numbers studying engineering and technology (124,025).
But what are students actually getting when they sign up for a period of study? Jonathan Hitchen, a tutor at Manchester School of Art, MMU, describes his course structure.
"Three quarters of our curriculum is based around practical responses to project briefs, where we engage students in a creative studio culture that includes workshops and group discussion. The other quarter is spent on contextual studies and reflective practice, and is more lecture based. As you might imagine, we encourage a high level of crossover between these two methods."
This fusion between studio work and theoretical investigation is typical of many courses, and seems logical for an ever more demanding and complex world where knowledge is the most important currency. Yet for a lot of students, many coming straight from school, this fusion of practice and theory can be bewildering.
As Hitchen notes: "Most art students used to study a foundation course before starting their degree. These courses did (and many still do) a great job of introducing a more creative way of learning and getting students to re-evaluate their approach to being educated."
"The number of students choosing to take this extra year is in decline and more students are coming straight from school. They often require more time to adapt to the different learning environment."
This 'different learning environment' has been mostly brought about by the upgrading of art schools to full university status. Nevertheless, the academic regimes of universities mean that grades matter.
"This places all the emphasis on academic achievement as being the passport for a job as a graphic designer or illustrator," notes Ian Mitchell. "And no employer or client asks you what degree award you got – they are more interested in your work and your personality."
Preparing for the workplace
In recent years, the trend in BA design education has been a drift towards a postgraduate climate of self-directed and self-reflective study. Listening to some educators talk, it's hard to know whether they are talking about BA or MA courses.
When viewed as a move towards self-learning, this trend is not hard to understand, especially when we consider that the skills learned today may be redundant tomorrow. It seems logical, then, that the emphasis should be on creating thinking practitioners willing to embark on a career of continuous learning.
However, Jonathan Hitchen warns against over-prioritising the need for self-reflection: "When push comes to shove, there are some harsh commercial realities that tend to override a more critical, reflective approach. The no-client, no-budget, self-authored graphic design that tends to be widely celebrated has never seemed more distant from the over-cautious, mass visual communication that is the mainstream of the graphic design industry today."
Who is doing the teaching?
Plenty of designers have caught the teaching bug. Many spend part of their working week running courses, organising workshops and teaching classes within the university system. Most designers reach a point when they feel an urge to pass on their knowledge.
Besides the obvious advantage of accessing new talent, another far greater benefit is the clarity of thinking and the self-reflection that comes from being forced to explain your processes and methods to young designers. In other words, designers teach in order to learn.
But should all design tutors be graduates from design courses? Is this a feedback loop that needs to be broken? Perhaps it is already happening: just as design students are being edged towards prioritising academic grades over studio work, teachers are being forced into becoming academics ahead of being practitioners.
David Smith at IADT sees no problem with an academically inclined pedagogy for designers: "Skills acquisition is less of a priority for me," he says. "These are easily acquired, and honed with practice and dedication. Obviously different professional situations require different levels of skill and varying depths of knowledge, but a motivated and curious individual should be able to adapt."
"Therefore, in my view a critical and curious mind is of far greater importance as this will sustain a designer on the occasion when their skills may be redundant."
But Smith is not blind to the challenges inherent in creating "critical and curious minds." He says: "Instilling this level of interest and dedication is a challenge, and not all students will display the motivation or interest."
So perhaps the new breed of academically inclined design tutors has a role to play in creating students fit for a changing world. As Smith says: "An ability to communicate ideas clearly and coherently is essential. A capacity for independent thought is also vital if students want their work to stand out from the obvious and familiar styles or trends that saturate modern practice."
It is in the nature of modern business that all employers want an education system that gives them a supply of oven-ready employees they can slot straight into productive activities. On top of this, every studio head and employer wants something different – typography skills, art direction skills, web design skills and so on.
Other detrimental factors hang over the employment scene. Foremost amongst them is the scarcity of jobs (especially among the 20–30 age group), the changing nature of design in a networked world and student expectations.
It may be that the scarcity of employment is linked to the rise of networked communications. It is now possible to start a business with a Facebook page – and who needs a web designer when a start-up business can download a customisable website from one of the many companies offering complete web packages? They are even advertised on primetime television.
Rising student expectation levels provide a further complication. Degree courses appear to be succeeding in their aim of turning out talented, independent, critical thinkers. Therefore it stands to reason that these graduates are going to want to find employment that matches their ambition and expectations. These jobs are thin on the ground, so it's not uncommon to find the talents of young designers being under-utilised.
But despite these problems, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. It might just be that a design education, with its emphasis on continuous learning, is an excellent grounding for a life of perpetual change.
There are always obstacles and every generation has them, but so far every generation has overcome them. And design in its widest sense has thrived to the point where modern culture is unthinkable without it. Surely our education system, though far from perfect, can't be all that bad?
Words: Adrian Shaughnessy Illustration: Tommy Parker
This article first appeared in Computer Arts issue 232, a design education special packed with insight, inspiration and behind-the-scenes access to the world's most exciting creative minds.
Head to MFM to buy your copy of Computer Arts 232 (opens in new tab), or save money by subscribing to the world's leading design magazine (opens in new tab) today.