“Online art school is not art school”: The future of creative higher education in the age of Covid-19

We investigate the challenges, pitfalls and opportunities of taking creative courses into the digital realm, and talk to the students and institutions who are feeling the impact.


Janice Chang
29 September 2020


As autumn looms and universities prepare to partially open up their doors again, a question mark still hangs over the future of creative higher education in the age of social distancing. On 23 March, the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown and since then, uncertainty and chaos have been infiltrating the education system as we know it.

Amid much controversy, institutions began digitising all interactions and creative output months ago as part of their emergency response to the global crisis. Aside from the exam results fiasco of last month, students and tutors alike have been told to embrace the “new normal” this coming term, even if their creative futures depend on it. We’ve seen an uproar from students around the world questioning how teachers are able to measure creativity through a screen. It begs the question: if online learning proves to be successful, what does that mean for the future of creative higher education? We set out and spoke to those being affected by online learning in the age of Covid-19.

From the UK to the US and beyond, institutions are adopting a new “hybrid model” where students are given a combination of online and in-person teaching. One of the many schools implementing this new strategy is Plymouth College of Art. The art school has invested in several digital tools and online resources, and subsequently, tutors like Milly Brown, who heads up the fashion, media and marketing department, have had to readjust. “Initially there were times when [my] role felt overwhelming; we were basically reinventing the delivery of our programmes while trying to support anxious students and give them a sense of continuity,” she says. “As a result, it was really hard to turn off when there was so much to be done and normal hours went out the window.”

Despite the mental and physical ramifications of Covid-19 and what Milly can only describe as “teacher bashing” in the press, online learning has brought with it some clear advantages, like the dismantling of the social hierarchies that often come with art school. On whether the digitalisation of creative higher education will affect the position of the arts in the UK’s education system, she says: “It is a dangerous time to think all creative learning can be moved online and that studios, crit and making spaces, print rooms, and furnaces can all be devalued or even ditched. We need to ensure that this digital offer doesn’t become homogenised and institutions retain what makes them unique in terms of ethos, content and delivery.” She adds: “It’s hard to replicate this humanistic practice in a digital-only space.”

Not so long ago we witnessed degree shows being halted all over the world; some were adapted for the digital world and others postponed altogether. Now, new and progressing students are wondering what lies in store for them. 89 out of the 92 Universities UK survey respondents have said that they will provide some in-person teaching this term, with exact details being undisclosed. Creative institutions in London, including Royal College of Art and University of the Arts, are also adopting a “blended” approach in accordance with government guidelines.

Online creative education is no substitute for the real thing. Indisputably, universities are where budding practitioners meet their lifelong friends and future collaborators, and although there will be opportunities to interact in person, socialising is expected to undergo its own metamorphosis this year, with students instead flocking to their computers for virtual fresher fairs and glitchy Zoom comedy nights.

However, with no idea of what’s to come, it’s important to be braced for the unexpected and that’s what this “hybrid model” is evidently designed to do. Graphic designer and educator Anoushka Khandwala predicts: “This fusion of online and offline education will provide a framework that is more resilient for the future. We don’t know what other pandemics, natural disasters or political changes await us, so being able to design an adaptable system now that we can revisit, should we need it, is not only smart, but vital.”

We’ve seen controversy and anger give birth to rampant online activism in the past several months. Within the education realm more specifically, the #PauseorPay campaign founded by UAL students has been leading the way on Instagram. The movement was intended to encourage art schools to reimburse students or alternatively pause their studies. With an accompanying petition that garnered over 1,500 signatures, the campaign enabled art students across the country to bind together in digital solidarity.

Elsewhere in the virtual sphere, MA Visual Communication students implored “online art school is not art school” in a campaign designed to highlight the limitations of online learning. From discussions with a range of prospective students, it seems that indignation and demands continue to rage on into the new term. Natalia Castañeda attends London College of Communication and is on a year-long Publishing MA course. She describes the reality of being taught online for eight out of the 13-month programme: “I wanted to defer my studies, because it’s a little ridiculous to receive a creative or artistic degree online, but I was told by my university that I could not defer if the reason was due to Covid-19.” According to Natalia, the feeling is mutual amongst returning students: “Almost everyone is incredibly discouraged and disappointed by how UAL has handled the crisis. We all feel robbed. Besides the fact that the fees are astronomical for international students, there has been no talk whatsoever regarding fee adjustments or partial refunds.”

We got in touch with UAL for a response, and a spokesperson wrote back to us: “Like other UK universities, we are working hard to ensure students can progress their studies. In the autumn, we will be delivering a blended experience. This will mean access for students to on-site facilities as well as online learning.” They added: “Our Time Out Policy continues to operate as usual and requests will be granted for reasons such as health. Due to the measures introduced to support students’ ongoing studies, students can’t request time out on the basis of a desire to opt out of blended learning.”

Money remains an overarching issue for students around the world. As they weigh up the pros and cons of paying large sums for a hybrid course – even with a discount – the reality is that 20 per cent of students are reconsidering plans to start university in the autumn, with a possible 120,000 student shortfall expected. Architecture students about to embark on their Part Two programmes face a £250 increase from their original undergraduate degree. Felix Sagar, a re-enrolling Bartlett student, says: “I understand that when you turn universities into businesses – as was the case with the initial tuition fee increase to £9,000 – the running of the university becomes largely dependent on student fees. Cutting fees will result in staff redundancies and the government has already made it clear there will be no bailouts.”

Having already completed his undergraduate course and two years in industry, the young architect is of the opinion that “it will be different. We will be forced to approach design in a much more confined way. Yes, the ability to explore ways of making, creating and testing ideas will be reduced. However, this may have its positive sides, allowing more focus on theory and desktop-based design such as the exploration of new softwares and their possibilities.” When asked whether he was feeling positive about the next chapter of his studies, Felix says he understands the world is changing and “sudden surprises and uncertainty will surely define this generation. Considering the challenges that lie ahead, both socially and environmentally, the ability to adapt and persevere will help drive the collective determination required for change.”

Indeed, being commanded to “stay home and save lives” in the wake of a global crisis has led many students and tutors to wave goodbye to what they know and to embrace new experimental ways of creating and connecting. Last month, The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay used AI technology to create avatars of 2,000 students for their virtual graduation ceremony. The high-tech event was a global hit that stirred excitement around the future of online technologies. Closer to home, the reality of a digitalised curriculum is a little more nuanced. According to Sarah Temple, a course leader at London College of Communication, “as long as a degree isn’t entirely digitalised, creative education will flourish and gain value from what is achievable online.”

RCA graduate Alice Johnson has just waved goodbye to her time on the MA Ceramics and Glass course. She reflects on her studies and how online teaching “took the romanticism away from the handmade”. As the ceramics practice is focused on the physical, the digitalisation of the course was always going to be an interesting attempt. However, with a final project to complete, Alice set out to make the best out of a bad situation: “After sulking for a long time, I started playing around with carving soap sculptures which evolved into taking everyday domestic materials such as newspaper, tester pots of paint, foil, Polyfilla, and making ‘Domestic Totems’ as a way to represent the times we are living through.” She adds: “People do ceramics as an antidote to the digital world, so it all seems completely counterintuitive. Our work is tangible and needs to be viewed in real life and not through a screen.”

In similar vein, Jess [not her real name] from Shillington College of Graphic Design expresses her sheer dissatisfaction with the new online offering. Despite the efforts of modern technologies, she admits: “A significant pitfall for me is the lack of live feedback from teachers and the subsequent loss of an immersive teaching style. I appreciate the efforts Shillington has gone to to make the experience as good as possible, but as with many students across the world, the experience thus far is just not what we signed up for.”

As ever, the future seems open to many possibilities, and if the last several months are anything to go by, today can look drastically different to tomorrow. Brighton University’s BA Illustration leader Roderick Mills emphasises that we will see a “drive to re-imagine what education is, similar to the changing scene of the high street”. Yes, like Britain’s high street, the education system is under immeasurable pressure to come out the other side and nail its online offering; however, I’m keen to see whether creative problem solving can keep up with this accelerated speed of change – and how it will define creative higher education as we know it.

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About the Author

Siham Ali

Siham Ali is a freelance culture writer and commentator. She frequently works with Creative Lives in Progress and is the deputy editor of the annual print and digital magazine, Roundtable Journal. She's written for the likes of Vice, Gal-dem, New Statesman, Between Borders Magazine, ART UK, plus many more. 

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