Open Letter to John Swinney, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, and Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science

Sign this letter in support as an individual or an organisation here
Dear Minister,

We are writing to you on the behalf of students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee. DJCAD Pause or Pay has formed in these past few weeks out of significant dissatisfaction among the student body. 

We are affiliated with the UK-wide Pause or Pay UK action group which was formed by student creatives in light of how their respective institutions and government had responded to their educational needs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Art schools across the UK failed to make a case for their students, the majority of whom necessarily depend on access to specialist tools, workshops, and studio spaces in order to benefit from study. Our membership in Scotland also consists of members from Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art. We share resources and have the backing of member branches from art schools the length and breadth of England. 

It is necessary for Scottish art and design students to present their unique case to the devolved government; a significant majority of our school are SAAS-funded. We cannot therefore present precisely the same demands in terms of how government and complicit universities might provide compensation or alternatives to students here. 

SAAS-funded students in practical subjects like ours have lost access to significant industry experience. Unlike more theoretical degrees, art and design disciplines are highly specialised and vocational. We apply to art school with the express purpose of having a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore the full possibilities of creative making; with full access to world class facilities and the expertise of technicians. For many, choosing to study at university is a significant financial decision; the living costs loan only goes so far, and with each year the debt becomes greater. The anger which many student creatives feel is justified by this under the current circumstances, as we are accumulating the same value of living cost loan debt and throwing away our future access to free tuition; yet receiving a wholly inadequate ‘online learning’ experience in return. 

It seems that not nearly enough has been done by our universities to communicate our unique situation. Current students returned to DJCAD at the beginning of October, with renewed confidence that access to facilities would be guaranteed in some form. Many of us now feel that we have been lied to by both the university and government agencies. The measures brought into place in January are absolutely necessary, and are in the interests of the whole population; but special care should have been taken when considering alternatives to normal study, especially where practical courses are concerned. 

Our particular concerns lie with the false manner in which our respective practical courses have been advertised to current students, and how the University of Dundee has continued to publicise an unrealistic prospectus for students applying to start in September 2021. It is our firm conviction that we have engaged in our studies under the assumption that we would have the opportunity to achieve learning outcomes through the use of specialised studio spaces and workshops equipped with industry-standard tools. We ask that you consult the specific course information for practice-based courses at DJCAD and identify the disparities between what students were promised and what is currently being delivered. Our school management have been able to surreptitiously deliver the ‘learning outcomes’ on paper due to the fact that most of our courses permit students to have some agency over what specific media and facilities they use to achieve them. For example, the aims for the second year Fine Art BA (Hons) module which commenced teaching in January 2021 (DJ22003 – Contemporary Art Practice 2) have been deliberately outlined in broad terms with respect to making as follows: ‘You will continue experimenting and exploring different media and techniques, but there is a greater emphasis on reflecting on and resolving your work for exhibition.’ 

It is evident that our school has exploited the lack of specific requirements in the learning outcomes pertaining to attaining practical skills by generalising the module aims. Therefore, our Dean Anita Taylor, has been able to claim that the standard of the teaching, experience and qualifications being delivered by the school are appropriate to a professional practice. We argue that this is not the case, as it is entirely unreasonable and restrictive for students to be expected to narrow the scope of their practice down to what can be achieved within a home environment. The majority of students simply do not have an appropriate, safe or well-equipped space within their homes to undertake the kind of practical work which led them to embark on a degree-level course. It severely disadvantages students who have varied financial circumstances, ambitions to work in disciplines which require expensive equipment, smaller home environments, challenging family situations and insufficient funds to purchase materials.

First year students, who undertake a broad General Foundation course at DJCAD, have expressed their dismay at being faced with having to decide which of the creative specialisms to take forward into second year; despite having had only a fraction of studio time and exposure to different disciplines. Many will now go blindly into their chosen specialism, and may face significant difficulties when confronted with post-lockdown skills-based assessment criteria.

Those of us in our second year will be at a similar disadvantage; this is ordinarily a year dedicated to intensive experimentation with specialist tools and workshops. This is where we should have the opportunity to hone the relevant skills to our chosen degree specialism. Instead, we are now faced with making do with what materials are available to us at home. For those in highly skills-based areas like Textile Design and Jewellery and Metal Design, virtual learning can never hope to reflect the need for access to industry quality facilities and expertise. In our recent student experience survey (please find attached), one second year Textile Design student conveyed in a survey response that ‘a lot of the course is about learning how to use specific materials you wouldn’t be able to use out with university that is necessary for the course; such as standard gauge knit machines, making high quality samples difficult to achieve.’ In a professional context, these specialisms are exceptionally competitive; even under normal circumstances graduates can face significant challenges. Those who have had little more than a virtual experience will be placed at a significant disadvantage when compared to past and future students.

For those in the penultimate and final years of their degrees at DJCAD, the course provisions offered in light of the current restrictions have been devastating. The grades attained by these students decide the outcome of their degree, following a significant period of intensive problem-solving and skill development. This should be a time to fully resolve and solidify one’s voice as a professional artist and have sufficient opportunity to deploy expertise through placements or exhibitions. Instead, this has been swept away and replaced with an expectation to ‘adapt’ in terms of approach to the creative process. While this may be sufficient to enable students to achieve the newly lowered learning outcomes, it provides little in the way of preparing graduates for employment in the creative sector; and many are concerned that their degree will not carry the same weight. 

As previously iterated, creative people do not simply come to art school for the prestige of having a degree on paper; but to be equipped over their time in education with valuable technical experience. Creative fields are uncompromising in this regard, and the opportunity to gain this experience is an essential part of the journey for an artist or designer.

The DJCAD Pause or Pay group has opened a dialogue with our Dean, Professor Anita Taylor to raise our concerns. Our recent meeting provided us with an open forum to convey the full extent of dissatisfaction among the student body and to lobby school management to strongly advocate on our behalf, both to university management and Higher Education Governance. However, the response (please find attached) amounted to little more than a denial of any need or institutional power to campaign for the alternatives we wish to see. This was understandably frustrating, and group members and supporters were left feeling that the priority of the school and university was to save face, and be seen to be providing high quality education; rather than responding to our legitimate concerns with tangible, transparent action. We were directed to contact agencies external to the university to raise our concerns and demands.

What we wish to see is for SAAS-funded students in studio-based courses to have this year of access to free tuition discounted so that they are permitted to defer without facing the prospect of having to fund themselves through a repeated year. The Scottish Government must also lobby the universities providing studio-based courses to reimburse those who pay their own fees; international and UK students for example. This is of crucial importance because there are current students who are paying a minimum of £9k per year for a fraction of the education they deserve. We also ask that the Scottish Government order universities who deliver studio-based courses to permit their students to defer from this point in the academic year without exception, on the grounds that course provision can not be adequately fulfilled as a result of the current restrictions. Furthermore, all students who choose or who must continue with their course for financial reasons should receive some form of direct financial rebate; going to university is a significant financial undertaking and there is no student who would wish to accumulate living cost loan debt without receiving an education as advertised. 

We recognise that the government has taken action to provide financial relief to universities in the form of £20 million for hardship funds, but more must be done. All students in creative subjects are suffering under these circumstances to a greater or lesser extent; and must have more choices made available to them.

We ask that you consider the unique challenges of our current situation, and that few mitigations have been put in place, both at a university and government level, to lessen the impact of COVID-19 restrictions for studio-based learners in Scotland. We have approached our school and university management only to have our concerns deflected. It is our hope that you will investigate this matter to the fullest extent and begin working with the University of Dundee and other Scottish art schools/ departments in order to pave a way to delivering the demands we have set out in this letter.
 

Yours sincerely,

DJCAD Pause or Pay, a branch of Pause or Pay UK (pauseorpayuk.org)
- Pause or Pay UK
- UAL Action Group
- Whats happening KSA
- RCA Action
- ECA Action Group
- MSoA Action Group
Socialist Society of the University of Dundee
HUBCAP Gallery
Scottish Artists Union
USDAW
Scottish Socialist Party (signed by National Secretary on behalf of Party)
Faliraki Creative Group
Write Off, Right Now
Liberate the University
University of London Rent Strike

and 349 individual signatures

Individual signature counts will be updated daily
 
Sign this letter in support as an individual or an organisation here. Deadline for signatures: 6th March 2021.
Pause or Pay is a UK-wide student-led cross-university action group that emerged as a response to disruption of studio-based learning by COVID-19. To date, we have campaigned to MPs, initiated complaints procedures at various institutions and supported tuition fee strikes. Questions? Interested in helping out? Email us at pauseorpayuk@gmail.com or find us at www.pauseorpayuk.org and @pauseorpayuk on Instagram and Twitter. Sign up to join the organising here: https://forms.gle/YSSUvQTQQTWQcpAC8