Gwennan Rees

Blogger and Illustrator

Hitting The Nail On The Head

Hitting The Nail On The Head

I wasn't planning on writing a blog post this morning. I have a commission that needs working on, I need to go pick up some frame, I need to photograph and list my prints on Etsy, I need to hoover the house. There are plenty of things I should be doing rather than blogging and I will get to them after I'm done writing, but this morning on Twitter I read an article that inspired me to comment on it and give my own personal view and opinion. Creative Review tweeted a link to an article posted on their blog yesterday which was originally printed in Creative Review's August issue which focused on education. You can find the article here and follow Creative Review on Twitter here but I'm not going to post the entirety of the article on my blog because the majority of it isn't something I have experienced first hand.

The author of the blog is a lecturer at a British university and writes about the problems of teaching a creative industries course in a Higher Education format when those in charge and focused on the university as a business and less interested in the ethics and the creativity of the students. He describes the National Student Survey and the obsession of middle management with stats and figures and talks about when 70% of their graduating students  went onto full time design work within 6 months of leaving the institute (a remarkable figure for a creative industries course), the people at the top wanted to know why didn't the other 30%. The whole article is something I feel might resinate with a lot of HE tutors and lecturers and well worth the read to anyone who studied a creative course in university.

However, as a student who didn't leave uni long ago enough to forget the nitty gritty, the parts of this article that hit the nail on the head for me was about the students and their experiences themselves. The author writes;

"On a daily basis students will sit arms folded, waiting for me to continue to instruct them even though they've been briefed and have a deadline looming. "What do I have to do to get a good grade?" some will say outright. What they want is a clear formula, obsessing not about the work but the number they will achieve."

This I know for a fact was something I did myself. I was (and still am) hugely driven to being the top of my field and I remember distinctly in my Foundation diploma coming up to the end of my Final Major Project with a mere few weeks to go to the end of the course, my tutor gave me a crit on my nearly completed project and I outright asked "What are you expecting work wise to give someone a distinction". All credit to my tutor, he roughed out the criteria they marked on for me, I finished the project and I finished the course as one of 8 students out of 150 to receive a distinction. That being said, it wasn't simply because I asked for the criteria, I worked bloody hard at GCSE, A Level, my diploma and my degree to get the grades I got because I strived for them, assuming that if you didn't hit the top marks you simply weren't the best which is what you need to be to make it in the creative industries. Having achieved A* at GCSE and A Level and then a Distinction on my diploma, naturally I aimed for a First class degree when it came to university and when I told my tutors this during Christmas of my final year, they warned me it was really exceptional students that achieve the highest grade, I still thought maybe just maybe I could nab one, simply because I was so dedicated and so driven so when I got the 2:1 I realistically knew I was getting, there was still a smidgen of disappointment that I didn't make the top cut.

This all stems, I think, from students having it drummed into them that you need the top grades to get a good foot on the career ladder. As more and more people go to university, the competition for jobs is getting more and more fierce and these days, simply having a degree isn't enough. I know someone who got a job based on her GCSEs. She made it to the final 2 of the selection process and her and the other candidate had exactly the same qualifications at degree and A Level, the same experience and in the end the employer took it right back to GCSEs to decide and she beat the other candidate based on results they got when they were 16. This constant barrage of information and advice and pressure from teachers, parents and lecturers that students are bombarded with means that more and more students see university as a necessity to getting further on in life and getting the 'correct' marks becomes like a full time job, not just the enjoyment of learning.

This is something I think is especially apparent in creative industries and the author of the article hit the nail on the head because you assume that if you get the top marks, you are the best graphic designer/illustrator/fine artist and therefore you are guaranteed the job at the end of it. No creative industries student is under any illusion how hard the market is to get into and a lot of students have been scorned for choosing such a path-we've all heard "well you'll never make any money from that". Therefore, to students, the top marks mean you are the best and the most talented and subsequently the job is yours. This of course, is not the case but I don't think the industry is taught enough in HE facilities anyway. I was lucky enough to go to a university whose tutors really focus on the career at the end of the road and during my third year we were taught everything our tutor could teach on the industry, based on what we wanted to know, and that was invaluable to our education. Focusing so much on our grades and marks takes all the enjoyment and creativity out of a creative course and I think the management of universities need to realise this, appreciate the creative industries are an anomaly and take the pressure off.

The other topic of the article that really resinated with me was the author's discussion about the quality of work and portfolios when interviewing prospective students and also the decline in experimentation, and the unwillingness of students to make mistakes and try something new when they begin their first year as an undergraduate student. They write;

"Part of the problem stems from what has happened to the Foundation course. This was one route used as a stepping-stone to university and a way for any student from any background to have the chance to proof, test, make mistakes and really experiment. With the erosion of these courses, we're now trying to cover that ground in year one."

This really hit home for me having done a Foundation Diploma at the University of South Wales (formally University of Glamorgan when I was there) before I began my undergrad. For one thing, I wasn't ready to leave school when I did and so the extra year still living at home but commuting 2 hours on the train (thanks Welsh public transport, the uni was 30 minutes from my house) every day, going somewhere new and making new friends for the first time since the age of 11 was a godsend. I grew as a person and in my own self confidence more in that year that I have any other time of my life and I always credit it as the best year of my life, just for opportunity, fun and finding myself, even more than I did at university, simply because it was the first time I had to do it.

My Foundation diploma also gave me the opportunity to discover who I was as a creative and an artist (I have never said anything more stereotypical and pretentious in my life), one I don't believe I could have had anywhere else. The comprehensive school curriculum doesn't allow for anything broader than Fine Art or Photography when it comes to Art and Design lessons and I found, if you couldn't master painting, there probably wasn't a lot of encouragement for you to pursue what you actually wanted to do. I was adamant I wanted to be a children's book illustrator from the age of about 5, however I hadn't actually done any, aside from my own projects and ideas at home. Going to do my diploma gave me the opportunity to make sure it was what I wanted to do before I embarked on my undergraduate life and also gave me the opportunity to try a bit of everything else and make sure one of the other disciplines didn't suit me more.

The structure of the traditional Foundation course is that the students are split into forms (basically classes like school) and for the first 6-8 weeks rotate around the classrooms and disciplines, trying every course on offer. For us that consisted of; Illustration, Graphic Design, Photography, Fine Art, Animation, Fashion and 3D Design which we spent an entire week exploring, having been assigned a project and research on. Just before Christmas we spent a fortnight each on two disciplines that we chose based on what we thought we wanted to specialise in (I chose Illustration because I was certain I wanted to do it by this point and Photography because I had just done an A Level in it). After the Christmas break we then chose our specialisms and stayed with them until the end of the course in June, competing out Final Major Projects.

I learnt so much on my Foundation course, I had opportunities I had never had access to before, I make lampshades from paper, I learnt how to develop photos in a dark room, it was the last time I had the opportunity to do life drawing for free, I made a stop motion animation, I made sculpture, I had my first lesson in typography-I basically tried everything the art world had to offer in a short space of time and at the end of it exhibited my work with the rest of my peers in an exhibition which we curated and set up which gave me that bit more experience when it came to curating shows in university.

I embarked on my Foundation course because at school I was told it was the next step that every art student did before university, however when I began my undergrad as a wide eyed fresher not knowing what to expect, I learnt that only one other of my classmates had taking the same path as me. The other were a mixture of mature students who hadn't been in education for years or 18 year olds fresh out of A Level (I was 20 by this point having taken my year out for the diploma). This, combined with our insanely small class size meant that our tutors literally didn't know what to do with us. We didn't have our own permanent studio space because we were such a small class, we were thrown in with the Graphics degree (who became good friends so not all bad) and we spent the first term working on briefs for a week at a time that ranged from still life to typography to cut out paper to drawing at a zoo to children's books to software. It was all a little hazy and mis matched and unorganised and with hindsight I think it was probably that my tutors were at a loss to know what to do with us because we were all at different stages of our lives and at different stages when it came to work. We literally had a lesson on how to mix colours with watercolour, something that should be taught at a GCSE lesson, not undergraduate.

This first year of confusion with no direction is not something I blame on my tutors at all, I attribute it to the fact that Foundation diplomas are a dying breed that aren't advertised enough as a worthwhile path for creative students to go down before hitting universities. The Foundation course is a blessing in disguise; they are free, if you qualified for EMA you were literally paid to study there, you got offered every grant imaginable and most importantly, you got the experience you need before you begin your first year of a degree.

The article I read in Creative Review this morning resinated with me so much I felt I needed to get my opinions down on this and agree; Foundation degrees need more support, creative students need more support, creative industry HE courses/tutors need more support and ultimately, the creative industries as a whole need more recognition for the unique batch of people that study and work within them.



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Sussex & Kent: Possibly The Most Beautiful Counties In Britain

Sussex & Kent: Possibly The Most Beautiful Counties In Britain