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So What’s Wrong at the Glasgow School of Art? Quite a Lot, According to Student Protesters

Glasgow School of Art is internationally revered. So when more than 200 students protest outside its main campus, as they did a few weeks ago, it’s worth taking note.

What could be wrong? Apart from Brexit? Apart from the tragic 2014 fire that destroyed part of the iconic Mackintosh building?

Demonstrators claim there has been a steep deterioration in standards, a lack of studio, desk, and workshop space, and an overextended teaching staff, together with a serious lack of communication with senior management. Moreover, as the student protesters have said in a statement, “The school seems to value its GSA ‘brand’ more than the education of its students and is now acting like a financial services institution.”

Money—or its lack thereof—is at the heart of the issue, exacerbated by the need to fund a £32 million (about $40.7 million) restoration of the burnt-out Mackintosh building.

UK art schools have become businesses and must find ways of making money. GSA aims to increase student enrollment by 25 percent over the next two years. “The thirst for overseas recruitment and increase in student numbers (and £9,000 annual fee, capped at £27,000 for students studying fine art and design for 4 years) leads to a ‘stack ’em high’ mentality with no commensurate increase in teaching and support staff or accommodation—but masses of administrators,” said former GSA’s deputy director, Jimmy Cosgrove. “But I doubt,” he adds, “GSA is alone in taking this path.”

When Central Government cuts funding, repercussions can be severe. Attracted by GSA’s international reputation, a large influx of foreign students from China, Korea, Taiwan, and India may well help the balance sheet, but, as former Royal College director Professor Tony Jones pointed out, “the essential British character of an institution is lost.”

Many feel that this “demo of discontent” has been too long in coming. Barbra Santos Shaw, a former professor at GSA and London’s Royal College said, “Art schools should never have gone in with universities. Art school teaching is totally different to providing lectures for a class of 120. It’s essential you work with students. It’s very hands on. The new rules of a bare 20 minutes a week contact for student/staff is truly shocking.” David Harding, founder and former head of the famous GSA Department of Environmental Art, told me, “My surprise is, why has it taken so long for students to know they are being duped and have been for a long time? Staff, of course, are cowed, and only the students have the power to change things. Moreover, the university model is simply not a good paradigm for art education. In the former, the emphasis is on the assimilation of existing knowledge, whereas in the latter, the emphasis is on creating new perceptions.”

Barry Atherton, a former GSA professor, added, “The current research-based culture has had the unintended consequence of lowering the status of teaching.”

Glasgow has a long track record of graduate success, but in recent years has encountered problems. NSS (National Student Survey) scores for 2015 show that, while Dundee (the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design) has a 91 percent satisfaction rating, GSA sits at 74 percent and ranks fourth from the bottom of 160 UK university institutions.

Student/staff ratios dropping from 10 to 1 in the 1970s to around 30–40 to 1 today, in a discipline where the one-to-one tutorial is at the core of teaching, results in a draining workload for staff.

Yet GSA Alumni are loyal. A recent graduate wrote, “It is sad that it has to come to this, especially as the school has very, very good teaching staff.” As a final year painting student put it, “I’m not complaining because I don’t like you, I’m saying it because I care, because I love you.” Other graduates, like Georgia Mackie, offered their full support to the protesting students. Mackie said, “We used to be better, we deserve better, but I add, in an address to GSA, You can be better, you must be better.”

The school’s director, Tom Inns, had been in office a mere six months when the fire broke out. After that trauma, bureaucracy seems to have taken over. One alum observed, “In this restrictive environment I question whether the names who are frequently relied upon for the GSA brand (Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Jim Lambie, Nathan Coley, et al.) would ever have achieved what they did.”

However, GSA does have plans to purchase the nearby former STOW College building, and, this week, the Garfield Weston Foundation gave a much-needed half million pound boost to the Mackintosh Campus Appeal. The original £20 million fundraising drive to restore the burnt-out Mackintosh has so far raised £18 million. That target was increased to £32 million, but has now grown to £80 million for the total Garnethill development project. This includes the restoration of the west wing and upgrade of the east wing of the famous Mackintosh Building as well as purchase and conversion of the former Stow College Building and site.

GSA spokesman Lesley Booth said, “The restored Mackintosh Building will be at the heart of the extended campus, with the building returning to its original academic configuration as a home for all first-year students; £48 million of the total £80 million ($101.8 million) will come from GSA sources including insurance and disposal of buildings elsewhere on the Garnethill estate.” This leaves £32 million yet to raise.

GSA hopes Stow will be ready by 2018. After 50 years, at last the GSA School of Fine Art has a great opportunity to centralize in one building. That’s okay for the future, but, the protesters have said, “Longer term structural and operational decisions should not be conducted with a blatant disregard for the quality of education and provision of services to the existing students.

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