Illustration and NUA
Illustration graduates’ accounts and criticisms of studying at Norwich University of the Arts
Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) is a small university in the centre of Norwich with courses focused on arts, design and media. It has a long history as an art school, having opened as Norwich School of Design in 1845. It became Norwich University College of the Arts (NUCA) in 2007, re-branding itself as an an art college. Finally, NUCA became NUA in 2012 following the introduction of tuition fees and student loans.
I applied for universities when I was doing my A-Levels, so I went for Falmouth University, Edinburgh University and Norwich University of the Arts. I only got into NUA, which wasn’t my first choice of the three. I was impressed by the facilities I’d seen at NUA’s open day, such as the student bar, iMac suites and facilities for borrowing equipment. The friendly staff and students I met probably cemented the idea that NUA was an institution worth a lifetime of student debt and three years of my life. In the end, I had a choice between NUA and an art foundation course in my local college, so NUA was a no-brainer for a naive sixth-former eager to leave home (and pressured into going to uni by school). I started in the autumn of 2014.
I chose Illustration because I wanted to become an illustrator, having been told I’d learn skills essential to telling stories and communicating ideas visually. This might be considered a more “traditional” view of illustration — book illustration, for example. I wasn’t interested in art forms such as performance art and conceptual art, which I would have expected of a Fine Art degree.
I should add, as a kind of disclaimer, that I’m not against abstract art, conceptual art, and experimental art forms in general. I’ve seen many examples of abstraction and conceptualism being explored in progressive and interesting ways. However, I think the course represented these poorly within an outdated and limiting framework.
In this write-up, “illustration” is capitalised when referring to the Illustration course and written in lower case when referring to the discipline of illustration. Quotes shown in bold are the accounts of anonymous Illustration students.
BA Hons Illustration
In this section I’ll discuss the course, my time on it and the issues people came across while there.
‘“Everything can be criticized, even “resisted,” as long as the political consensus is not disturbed.”
— Wikiworld, Juha Suoranta & Tere Vaden (2009)
We performed a role-play of a university education rather than receiving an actual education. What was described as education actually involved copying or parroting the practice and mannerism of different fields, such as conceptual theory in fine art, or workshop practice in corporate industry.
For example, we were involved in an “illustration festival”, but in reality it was a single day event that the course constructed. It made the students feel as though they were involved in an illustrative practice, however, it was all a simulation. NUA Illustration’s festival was not like a real illustration festival at all. One such actual illustration festival even took place in Norwich at approximately the same time called On Paper. It was seemingly actively withheld from the students knowledge, as there was little publicity and oddly no involvement of the university at the event. On Paper brought commercial illustrators from around the UK and abroad to Norwich, and they sold printed versions of their work that held public appeal.
Meanwhile at the course festival, on display were various table top activities and workshops, such as flour and glitter goo that you can play with using your hands, or make-shift instruments that the students had made using litter. The students all had intellectual themes tied to their tabletops. It was a way of adding a light conceptualism to everything, which gave us the feeling of being academic and made us feel important and in turn, made us feel like the work we were producing was important, too. But the themes only acted as entry points to the illustration, and were never explored to the same depths as fine art for a gallery space, for example. The public repeatedly said to the students “How is this stuff illustration?”
Fittingly, a question we were constantly given on the course was “What is illustration?” It was a rhetorical question with no answer. The answer was never important. A lecturer directly told me this was deliberately done to get students to think about it as a topic. But what this ultimately did was confuse students. There were no real academic seminars like you’d expect on a university course. There were no theorists, historical contexts, or real education in terms of anything that resembled a cohesive direction in a university course. There were few essays or development assessments, and the ones that we did have were simply self reflective or contextless, feeling unrelated to the actual progression of the course. This meant that nothing was grounded in reality or objectivity. The tutors could — and did — make things up, and within this bubble the students had to take it all seriously because as it was the only information that they were exposed to. Many believed it all to be absolute fact.
For example, the tutors stated that the randomised group work they made us do is how collaboration is conducted in real life industry. When pressured for evidence to back up their claims, it became apparent that this wasn’t true, and that collaborations in real life are usually met with mutually understood agreements and directions. We were told how exposure through competitions was equal to payment and was worthwhile, despite the Association of Illustrators outlining how that was terrible and exploitative practice. (The university likes to promote itself with the number of competitions its students enter however). In relation to education of illustration practice, their word was to be taken as the true “expanding form of illustration,” despite how exploration into illustrative form is happening across the globe by practitioners from all walks of life. Meanwhile the course sent out emails asking students to have “faith” in the course direction when criticisms were made towards their insulated methods. The students had to blindly trust the course, despite facing complete contradiction, opposing information and mixed messages, or else they risked feeling lost and confused.
What this discourse resulted in was a complete breakdown of objectivity, and all that was left was subjectivity. Ultimately whatever the students felt was illustration became illustration. However, although anything could potentially be illustration, some illustration directions fit the grading system and tutor’s tastes better than others.
The irony is that this “freedom” to follow in one’s own direction was an illusion. The student directions that better fitted the course simply took centre stage, and anything that did not follow in that path was ostracised. Some students fit in more with this central course direction while others did not, thus it made sense to conform your direction to the course direction if you wanted more attention and better grades.
But how was it possible to assess and review something deliberately made to be so subjective? Successful examples of work were ones that fit this repetitive and esoteric grading matrix, but it was vague to the point were interpretation could bend the meaning of the criteria to whatever you wanted. The actual work itself was inconsequential to how you’re graded. Instead, it was the write up of your process that was assessed. With this blanket system of interpretation in place, work that maximised the process of how an illustration was constructed responded better with the grading system. Work that was conceptual-lite and involved the students to role-play as a modernist as they “discovered” or “researched” something, would create an occupation which could be documented. For many, the course became like a puzzle for the students to crack in order to “survive” within it, rather than enabling being creative and truly experimental within their own directions. If one was to simply produce an illustration, that would likely fail on this course, regardless of it’s quality, as “quality” is an unquantifiable measurement. The grading system has found a way of quantifying art into a system. Anyone who has worked as an employee for a corporation would recognise this system as a method of reviewing, organising and controlling the employees. If they didn’t fit in to the course direction, students were made to feel like they as individuals were at fault, and they simply needed to work on themselves in order to “progresses”. However, never was the system itself questioned or criticised, as this was turned into a realism. What happened as a result was a fabricated binary of “right” and “wrong” that could not acknowledge information that it couldn’t compute. If your work was not postmodern, then your assessments often felt arbitrary. In reality, all artistic practices are valid, and quality is measured irreducibly on a case by case level. What NUA did was nullify and conform work ideologically to quantifiable measurements. Authenticity cannot thrive there.
This ideology perfectly matches that of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a capitalist political system that quantifies reality into categories that can be assessed through market forces. If you think of the grading system and the tutors like a market force, and we students as capitalists who were creating content for them to consume, then you might begin to get a feeling of how the course operates. The course emphasised how select students were chosen to go to their stall at the New Designers fair, which created an environment like a market force. Certain students and their work held more authority because it fit within the market force that enabled them selection into the New Designers fair. There is an “us” and a “them” construct now. At NUA figures and measurements are what determine value, such as competition rewards, going to fairs, gaining likes on social media, running events etc. occupation itself is illustration. This creates a cut-throat competitiveness based on scalability rather than irreducible quality. Larger, more ostentatious, and more commercialised work became the competitive standard. This is how, through the esoteric and subjective course direction, neoliberal ideology became the determinator of value on our course. The visual style of work in the third year became one that signaled culture and value like any commercial product, but was presented with the same conceptualism that was used to assess the work for a grade. This results in a confused bastardisation of postmodern academia and commercialisation; the two dominant forces of NUA.
They have effectively mystified illustration, in order to to de-mystify illustration, to then re-mystify illustration under their own definitions. It was a way of controlling what was and wasn’t illustration, and therefore directing students and their ideas towards postmodernism and/or neoliberalism. I tried to make illustrative work where the meaning was all present within the illustration itself. I wanted to discuss the topics that my illustration covered, and how the illustrations artistically reflected those topics. But my work was, time and again, reinterpreted by tutors to discuss the process of making illustration itself. This was a way of avoiding talking about the actual subjects within my illustrations, and a way of changing the discourse of what my illustrations were into their own directions. For example; one of my end of unit reviews ignored all mention of artist direction and instead wanted to focus on my production practice and methodology, while ignoring the meaning of my work and reinterpreting it within a commercial lens, despite marketing and commercialisation not being a focus at all in my direction.
Subjectivity reigns supreme, which can be problematic as it results in myopic work that is self-centered and unable to relate to the standards of artistic or commercial industry practice of illustration that are present outside of an institution. In fact, you could have potentially no clue of what was going on in the “real world” while at NUA. So long as you feel good about your work based upon the critiques and standards of the tutors and course direction, you could feel and believe you are progressing and learning on a completely subjective level; dazzled by the aura of illustration practice rather than engaging in the reality of it. The biggest paradox of NUA is how it attempts to cover all creative directions, whilst they all simultaneously clash, resulting in none of these directions achieving their potential. The course’s posturing at experimental, avant-garde processes are in reality really limiting. Its commercial and skills-based education is actually insufficient for real industry practice. Within this chaos, those that fit in are made to feel special, obscuring the fact we are all victims of exploitation. If you’re an NUA graduate like me, you’re now shackled with at least £27k debt. Was it worth it?
Our first task was to make drawing machines. We brought these to university on our first day and made abstract marks with them on a huge roll of paper that was spread across the studio floor. I thought it was intended as a fun icebreaker activity. I was wrong; this was only the first task of two years of activities which, I say as a graduate, were designed to deskill the course entirely. The course cleaned the slate of the ideas and directions the students took to uni, leaving them ripe for the tutors to indoctrinate with a regime of repressive postmodern academia and neoliberal ideology.
In many creative disciplines, a core skill set is required for a practitioner to be competent in their craft and understand design choices. For example, a graphic designer understands visual language, layout and audience. An animator can design characters and storyboards, understands narrative and can establish atmosphere. I’d argue that, likewise, a skill set is needed for an illustrator to create visuals that clearly communicate meaning to the viewer.
Similarly, art and design can be experimental in how rules are be manipulated and broken. Pablo Picasso famously became an experimental painter following his mastery of realistic rendering methods as a child. He was able to flout convention because he already had a fundamental understanding of how to paint and draw. The same case can be made of nearly every artist famous for making avant-garde and experimental artwork. Even famously deskilled works, such as Duchamp’s Fountain, are made in reaction to art canon.
We had little teaching of skills education across our time at NUA. Classes teaching skills were entry level inductions to processes such as printing and bookbinding. There was little coverage of technical skills such as applied colour theory, character design or composition/design theory; factors that are required to frame metaphor and narrative within a composition. Illustration is not a course for people who want to learn about narrative and figurative art — indeed, many tutors are hostile towards these. I came to university expecting industry-standard teaching into the theory behind ideas such as character design, perspective, layouts and tone. A list of by-the-book process inductions didn’t quite cut it.
Some topics are glossed over quickly and then never covered again. In Year 1, collages with cut out shapes and modernistic interpretations of colour theory was termed “design.” In Year 2, when I complained about the lack of technical skills education, a tutor said our short stories project covered it. In reality, the project consisted of us being briefed on short stories, with one talk about basic narrative structure and no teaching of skills. We were left to “illustrate” stories on a course that accepts anything (with a bias towards the less visually illustrative) and doesn’t teach students the theory and skills involved in the process of illustration. I think this leaves Illustration graduates unready for the illustration industry because of how highly competitive it is. Illustrators must be highly competent image-makers who can consistently produce images within allocated time parameters, requiring them to be masters of their own craft and process.
Deskilled work was pushed as being innovative and original. It was often praised for being “experimental,” although in my opinion it was the opposite because it had little contextual grounding and appealed to the tutors’ tastes. Work in the vein of abstract expressionism was pushed, branching out into ready-mades and installations later. The tutors had contempt for digital art and all manner of figurative art, regardless of medium — for example, a tutor dismissively called net art “crap.” The teaching was generally poor and unashamedly biased; for example, in first year pens were forbidden in a drawing task. “I don’t want you to fall into the same trap of drawing how I did,” said the tutor responsible, as if his personal experience justified imposing his bias on us. There isn’t a single set way of answering briefs — couldn’t the tutors have outlined this without imposing arbitrary restrictions?
There was an exercise where we had a piece of paper along the wall and we had to draw a line whilst walking with our eyes closed. When I stood back and saw what we were doing, it looked liked something tiny children might do. These felt like the training exercises you might might have to do as a creative icebreaker in a business training environment. The experience felt very vague because the tutors never stated why they pushed this direction, how it was experimental or innovative, and what the art stood for. Academic standards and considerations of theory were nonexistent. Take this brief for example:
Here the tutors dictate how the students should think and feel about what they depict. You must see the market as being “natural or organic.” You must see reality in “the shapes and marks that make up the marketplace.” In the framing of the brief, “shapes and marks” transcend subjectivity to become unquestionable reality, as the tutors would have it. It’s not the modernistic theory behind this that’s an issue, but more that it’s all presented as realism rather than a subjective way of viewing the world. In Year 1, we even had a talk in which the tutors stated that the drawings of a child are more “genuine” than the artwork of an adult — how? Define genuine? I think this was more disinformation to encourage students to be faux-naive. The tutors taught very basic and biased ideas whilst using language that spoke down at us, which, to be frank, comes across as patronising and infantilising.
Workshops advocating drawing seemed more about role-playing a curator by organising images of exhibits. Many exercises were centred around collecting objects, collating names of prestigious artists and bringing in objects that fit a theme. Sketches and studies were termed “visual research” — mystifying what research even is. Nowhere did briefs detail why any of this was part of the course. The students’ freedom to apply contextless modernist-style ideas of subjective truth made the course feel egotistical and self-centred. The only people students were answering to were a) themselves and b) the tutors, via their manipulation. I believe that this was the beginning of how some students later became “curators” who prioritised the hosting and branding of content, rather than the creation of art and design.
“I loathed the academic angle of the course because it was inherently stifling. Instead of embracing art, it was all about trying to wring out meaning and it kills the spirit of why I create. For all the talk about how everything is art, they turn back and imply “well only this sort of stuff is what we like.” My creativity stagnated because of it for three years. It hobbled me instead of helping me and that’s, frankly, disgusting.
I know that they can probably point and say that “oh you just didn’t embrace what we had to offer” but it all felt so wrong and inaccessible for me when combined with the culture of the course.”
With no seminars discussing contextual studies, this teaching also lacks a basis in art history or theory. It’s conceptual art given meaning and worth by the individual responsible. This makes it so subjective in its interpretation that it becomes beyond reproach. Any meanings behind an artwork are only known by the maker. Ironically, you might think this would make it fail as illustration! The term “illustration” is mystified to the point of oblivion only to be re-mystified and redefined by this vanguard; an endless cycle of mystification to re-mystify. This anachronistic revival of modernist ideas attributes to each maker their own personal art canon. The art direction is praised and promoted by the tutors whilst anything contrary to this vision is marginalised, which resulted in the forming of an ideology that was both aggressive and regressive, focused on the individual.
The neo-modernist end-product is esoteric, with an elite group of practitioners “getting it” whilst those who aren’t included are made to feel out of the loop. Naturally, this is very competitive, with art becoming more about the students stroking their own egos (and having their egos stroked by the tutors as validation for conforming). Lots of student “research” was based in biased web questionnaires posted in our Facebook group, which I think reflects how insular and inward the course was. Emperor’s new clothes: any opinion from outside might destroy the course realism.
Perhaps as a result of the course’s inwardness, appropriative art is common. I don’t mean art that is purely derivative, or art that’s viewed through a lens in which originality is paramount. Students’ art is appropriative in that it can be culturally appropriative and neo-colonial. To some, foreign crafts such as traditional Japanese painting and design are reduced to pure aesthetic, stripped of the context and meaning behind its production. It becomes another copycat style in the collection of the neo-colonial artist who claims to have made a ‘discovery’.
Looking back on the talks we had across our time on the course, it’s possible that the students are echoing the tutors and lecturers. In the lecture and tutorial detailed in the image below, the writer presents illustration of world issues to be a noble cause. No matter how genuine the depictions of refugees are in the tutor’s work, the studio exercise implies that students made work about current events. Providing “advocacy for those who are oppressed and without a voice” could easily become misrepresentation of vulnerable people because of how the workshop is framed. Furthermore, to me this seems like a celebration of the increased “opportunities” that there are today to illustrate these topics — this coming from a western writer, far removed from the wars in the Middle East. Again, the subtext is money, with a focus on more of something being better.
Similarly, social issues are claimed by people who do not suffer from them. Ethnic minorities are whitewashed. Pressing contemporary social issues are reduced to faux-radical aesthetics and themes, pandering to markets like a neoliberal. Neurotypical students virtue signal by making artwork misrepresenting mentally ill people. This art conveys how the student thinks the sufferer experiences the world, rather than depicting reality as the sufferer would tell it. An example of this is how a student used a series of blurry faces to depict how they thought a dementia-sufferer sees the world. Regardless of whether people agree about these issues surrounding art being considered or not, these issues haven’t been touched upon by the tutors. You’d expect that these socio-political issues would be at least be mentioned in a course that claims to be academic.
“I think showing something like mental illnesses in an ‘arty’ way like that makes it unrelatable and alien and does the opposite of making it more understood or encouraging people to talk about it or whatever. Spilt ink and blurred grey photos of trees doesn’t say shit about anorexia, what it’s like or how to help someone suffering from it.”
The university lacks modules altogether: we had units — term-long projects dictated by the course leadership — so we had no say in deciding which projects we studied. The issues with restrictive units and the lack of specialised teaching could be avoided if we were able to pick and choose modules instead. Modules in contextual studies, politics, business and art theory might be good examples. Maybe people didn’t complain about this because they were unaware of other universities having modules at all? I believe that the isolation many NUA students feel — having few university friends outside their class and not feeling part of a university culture — is at least partly down to how we don’t have modules and optional seminars we can drop in on.
NUA’s way of addressing this issue was to force cross-course collaboration projects when I was in Year 2. However, this was not cohesive and it felt contrived. It used it’s forced random group systems, and sent students off to perform occupation tasks which were lazy and, again, more of an exersise in group management than room for expression or learning. The fact it was a unit at all actually highlights to me that the university knows this lack of cohesion is an issue at the university. However, the issue was tackled in the most lazy way possible, without any systemic change. “Interchange,” the cross-course signup week (in which people could sign up for events such as bookbinding and writing) was another similar example to this: another contrived, one-off event that can be squeezed into their flawed system. Neither of these address the greater issues at hand with how NUA is run.
In summary, we all spent three years not learning anything about illustration, or even contemporary art. Some of my peers no doubt think being indoctrinated into curation and PR was useful, but we didn’t sign up for this. Any illustrative skill or aptitude I can lay claim to is purely the result of my own efforts or learning from my friends. Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that I’d feel more prepared for industry if I’d been on a better course.
Art as Occupation
Students’ art would focus on the process or method of art’s production, often in a self-referential way that absolved it of depicting any other themes, meanings or topics. We can only speculate as to why it’s made in this way, but what can be identified is that it’s memetic; it’s similar to the tutors’ and guest lecturers’ work in direction. Perhaps the students who made it only ever saw the creative practices the course presented them with. This leaves the course feeling concentrated and homogeneous, like an echo-chamber. Even in the end of year publication (in which the students had to choose quotes from practitioners they admire) they largely featured quotes by lecturers who had visited NUA for guest talks. Hito Steyerl identifies the phenomenon of people play-acting being artists in her essay “Art as Occupation”:
“Art is an occupation in that it keeps people busy — spectators and many others. In many rich countries art denotes a quite popular occupational scheme. The idea that it contains its own gratification and needs no remuneration is quite accepted in the cultural workplace. The paradigm of the culture industry provided an example of an economy that functioned by producing an increasing number of occupations (and distractions) for people who were in many cases working for free. Additionally, there are now occupational schemes in the guise of art education. More and more post- and post-post-graduate programs shield prospective artists from the pressure of (public or private) art markets. Art education now takes longer — it creates zones of occupation, which yield fewer “works” but more processes, forms of knowledge, fields of engagement, and planes of relationality. It also produces ever-more educators, mediators, guides, and even guards — all of whose conditions of occupation are again processual (and ill- or unpaid).” — Hito Steyerl: “Art as Occupation”
This art is neither commercial, nor avant-garde, nor research-based; as Steyerl says, the course is one of many “occupational schemes in the guise of art education.” The way it’s founded in mimicry suggests that it’s a roleplay: a means of keeping the students occupied and thinking this is how “illustration” is produced, play-acting being an artist. It’s a facade; an appropriation of how an illustrator works, going hand in hand with how students also readily assimilate cultural and political aesthetics. Someone’s Instagram profile doesn’t represent who they are in reality.
“The territory of occupation is not a single physical place, and is certainly not to be found within any existing occupied territory. It is a space of affect, materially supported by ripped reality. It can actualize anywhere, at any time. It exists as a possible experience. It may consist of a composite and montaged sequence of movements through sampled checkpoints, airport security checks, cash tills, aerial viewpoints, body scanners, scattered labor, revolving glass doors, duty free stores. How do I know? Remember the beginning of this text? I asked you to record a few seconds each day on your mobile phone. Well, this is the sequence that accumulated in my phone; walking the territory of occupation, for months on end.”— Hito Steyerl: “Art as Occupation”
Evidence of the course’s lack of direction is as apparent in what’s not taught as what is. A tutor would give us industry talks on Monday mornings that felt very out of touch with contemporary practice. For example, he suggested we print off portfolios of our work to give to prospective employers. It’s common knowledge that our generation is generally in financial dire straits with slim monetary prospects, so suggesting that we print off multiples of our work to give out for free suggests that he’s not even considering our financial situations and he’s out out touch with the times.
Other highlights from this tutor included suggesting that we hide our working backgrounds
and dress “quirky” to stand out from the crowd; points which contradicted what he had said about being honest and truthful to a prospective employer. (And his points were, again, out of touch with reality; no one will take a job applicant in a bow tie seriously, despite how “quirky” he thinks it is.) As said by Hito Steyerl, it’s the guise of art: the job applicant trying hard to look how they think a creative practitioner looks.
Furthermore, this tutor wanted us to enter competitions and work for cheap. He had brought in a pair of UEA staff who were seeking students to make work for a leaflet advertising a drug that may prevent osteoporosis. They said the drug was aimed at menopausal women who wanted to reduce the chance of getting the disease, and that the drug causes pain, therefore requiring appealing design work. They didn’t state which pharmaceutical company they were representing, and the dubious ethics of the company weren’t questioned. Whether it was illustration work or design for the entire publication wasn’t clear; when asked, they didn’t seem to know what they wanted at all. They said that they couldn’t pay, but they could give some small compensation for time spent on the work: exploitation. However, following this, lots of students rushed to sign up for the brief — without there having been any semblance of a debate or insight into this exploitative practice.
A very good guest lecture we had with an Association of Illustrators (AOI) representative disproved everything that tutor said: she told us about issues including copyright, fair pay and ownership. While the quality of this talk was good, it was the only one like it in three years at NUA, and the tutors’ inaccurate statements far outweighed it.
As a result of these contradictions and the general lack of expert advice, the truth of what it’s like to be a practicing illustrator is still vague to me. While opinions on the matter are subjective and experiences vary between illustrators, I have no idea what to expect of the future.
We had a guest lecturer in on most Monday mornings. Typically these lectures would be held in the lecture theatre, with the visitor giving a presentation on who they are and what their creative practice is.
The art and design we saw was diverse and varied in direction, medium and process. Work ranged from children’s book illustrations to urban development — whether I liked a particular practitioner or not, it was good to see a varied mix of work, and it was the closest thing to seeing actual practice within the course. They talked about their university education and how they became creative industry workers, but rarely about how the industry itself operates or why they make work the way they do.
Interestingly, no matter what a guest lecturer’s craft entailed, the tutors would often ask questions that steered the lecturer’s talk into fitting with what is encouraged by the course. Questions frequently concerned production methods: they asked how art was made rather than why, so the dialogue was directed into being mainly about processes.
Tutors never addressed how the guest lecturers were varied. On one hand we had Joe Kessler, whose practice is centred around comics and independent production methods. He shared the reality of industry by detailing how difficult it is to make a living as a comic artist. Then on the other hand we had Alice Maloney, a representative of Google and Anyways (formerly It’s Nice That Works) who talked about corporate industry in an opaque and subversive way. She was essentially advertising Google Hangouts in the presentation whilst acting like she wasn’t — a slide was dedicated to her cute dog for example! The issue at hand is how the agendas of these lecturers aren’t addressed, and instead they’re introduced on the same terms as one another. When these practitioners’ vastly different practices and directions aren’t addressed, this potentially makes them appear to be of one unanimous direction.
We were unable to discuss issues like this as a group because the opportunities to were so rare. The agendas of the lecturers and tutors were never made transparent. Few students ever asked questions, and any challenging questions about a lecturer’s practice were generally met with awkwardness and hostility. There was no opportunity to establish any proper rapport with any of the speakers, and so few people spoke that seminar-style discussion was impossible. How many students actually know what real lectures and seminars are even like, as a way to frame discussion? This leads onto the wider issue of how students feel satisfied with what NUA presents them with when it’s only a lackluster imitation of how larger universities conduct things.
Personally I disagree with university education being interspersed with advertisements in general. What’s even more shocking to me is how Maloney’s guest lecture was the 2016 first years’ first guest lecture ever — it seems so insidious that a deceptively corporate presentation is the first one that a group of the youngest students saw.
Seeping corporatism was consistently present throughout our time at NUA. For example, a business fair was hosted next to a societies fair, making it easy to conflate the two. Wix was constantly pushed, and I know for a fact that many students are using it as a result. Multiple workshops advertised Twitter as a marketing tool. The New Designers fair explicitly affected the course direction in Year 3 (more on that under the Elitism section). Fittingly, the university’s attitudes clearly reflect these ideas: the 2017 degree show marketed itself with the phrase “See them before they’re famous.” NUA’s social media content is hashtagged #wearenua (not #nua because that comes up with nudity) and taglined “Don’t underestimate art,” which aggressively puts emphasis on an identity that students are supposed to feel part of. But to me, feeling like an outsider there, this felt oppressive. “Don’t underestimate art” feels especially sinister when considering NUA’s attitudes towards art and closeness to neoliberalism. NUA feels Kafkaesque if nothing else.
Because most weeks introduced a new guest lecturer, the course boasts a lengthy list of speakers, which it shared in the degree show. While it’s good that the speakers were varied, the list was so eclectic that it felt like there was a general lack of direction at all. We were expected to go in and make notes to relate to our own personal practice, and maybe if we were lucky one visiting lecturer would be directly beneficial to our work.
The tutors would put on art documentaries when a guest lecturer was very late or had to cancel. Even these weren’t free from the biases imposed by the tutors to steer opinion. Memorably, we watched a documentary about Vivian Maier, a nanny that greatly valued her privacy. She photographed as a hobby and likely never intended for anyone to find her reels of undeveloped film. The tutor presenting the session said that Maier should have published her photographs while she was alive because she could have made a lot of money from it. It outlines to me how little respect this tutor has for both art and individuals, having to warp anything and everything to fit his commercial views.
I’m fortunate to have met working practitioners and to have occasionally communicated with some online. I feel that, through the efforts of myself and my friends, I have a decent understanding of “real world” art scenes and movements, and beyond that, what circles I might be interested in making art within. However, none of this came from the course! I don’t doubt that some of my peers might feel absolutely lost, or that others think that the guest lecturers are completely representative of all creative practices.
Redefining of Terms
A method the tutors use to mystify these teachings is the redefining of terms which have very commonly understood meanings. An obvious example might be “illustration” — how the course title itself has been made vague and questionable by the tutors. Terms are subjectivised as a means to fuel the claim that, under their regime of deskilling students and mystifying creative practice, anything can mean anything. “Musical” work sounded like a deafening cacophony — there was no “music” involved beyond making a lot of noise, consistent with how many might not call the contextless abstract scribbles of deskilled visuals “illustration.”
Personally I think it’s important that terms are deconstructed so that people can get a better understanding of what they mean. However, I believe it’s harmful to abstract the meaning of a word to the point of oblivion. Perhaps the tutors want to remove the meaning of illustration so they can have students unaware of professional illustration practice, using their pretense of progressive avant-garde experimentation to validate deskilling workshops and subversive neoliberal ideology under the mantle of “illustration.” They never stop to address why they’re deconstructing words like this, possibly because this would reveal the real reason they’re doing it, perhaps because it might show their incompetence — and for all we know, they may not have any idea what they’re doing or why.
Other deconstructions of words aren’t even rooted in subjectivity — they appear to be entirely fabricated. A memorable brief was when we made “tableaux” which were tables of ready-mades used to illustrate a story. We were told that tableau was a French art form with tradition or heritage to it. Turned out it was all made up! It only took a quick Wikipedia search for me to find out that (artistically) tableau didn’t refer to a table at all. It actually came from “tableau vivant” or “living pictures,” which featured costumed actors performing to communicate a meaning (essentially early performance art). I believe they made this up because what do they have a lot of? Desks and random objects — it’s easy.
The discrepancies don’t end there: the later “Norwich Illustration Festival” we hosted consisted of tables of workshops outside the local library, resulting in the confounded visitors asking us how any of the content was illustration at all. It wasn’t a festival — if anything it was a small fayre. Frankly, I found it humiliating and left midway. There were people mocking it and laughing at it because it looked so poor. The redefinition of words places the university in a very powerful position, as it can lie and manipulate people without repercussions, without people noticing, even.
The tutors never covered why the gallery events were part of the curriculum. A tutor said it was an “opportunity to be in a gallery” as an accolade that could fit on a CV. However, they have no legacy whatsoever and haven’t even been recorded. They may as well have not happened; certainly, no one will ever talk about them for years to come. Again, neoliberal measures — all just to produce content for a CV. Different art, or work that could never fit in an installation or be in a gallery space, is not considered at all. Typically, for example, commercial illustration appears in publications and not galleries.
Even “collaboration” is used dishonestly, as the term bears the connotation of being in a willing, constructive partnership when, in the context of the course, the term is used to mean working in randomised groups. When questioned, a tutor lied to me: they told me that illustrators often work in randomised groups in industry. On the course, these mismatched groups turn the success of a project into luck of the draw. If even student role-play of illustration work is hindered by randomised groupings, we can only imagine how badly it would impact “real life” work involving tight deadlines and money.
I wasn’t the only student the tutors took for a fool either, as many people I’ve spoken to report being lied to about this. I seems that the tutors were willing to use any excuse to justify the laziness inherent in the way the course is constructed.
“Bland & International”
Showcasing their prejudice and ignorance of contemporary media, a tutor told people to stop doing “Pokémon drawings” (anime? Character design?). I took an old manga to a book review session and the tutor blanked it as if it wasn’t there. My peer’s art, which was inspired by anime and manga, was dismissed as “bland and international” with no elaboration on what that remark actually meant. This suggests that the tutors had elitist art preferences that could potentially result in student output being ideologically directed. They can’t simply appreciate art by its own standards; art becomes content for them to interpret with their own individual values.
“[A tutor] gave the ‘we don’t consider things like Batman comics illustration’ speech in first year. Ironic that it was him who did my interview, when my portfolio was 75% character based work. Left me feeling like I shouldn’t be there. I tried to fit in by doing ‘abstract’ work. My work was shite and I hated it. This continued throughout the first two years.”
As Susan Sontag expresses in Against Interpretation: “By reducing the work of art to its content and interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.” Like Pavlov’s dogs: conform and you get rewarded, rebel and you’ll be punished. Working in groups made it hard to express individual opinions because we had to unanimously agree to an idea, which would inevitably conform to the course ideology. Additionally, the way in which the groups were randomised only made the struggle greater for any contrary ideas stand out.
According to some tutors, however, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted in our approach to art. But were we really? Their pragmatic “do your own thing” became a paradox. On one hand this creative freedom is apparently what they want of you, but this, regardless of how the student’s work looks, it’s still confined by the course direction. This fails to take into account how the repressive environment of the course affects practice. The studios felt like primary school dinner halls. They were loud, with no privacy and little space — in first year, some tables were crammed with as many as eight students knocking each other’s elbows. It was hard to concentrate and the work my peers and I made there was usually worse. Similarly in Years 2 and 3, we were expected to claim a desk and become part of “studio culture,” which is unfortunately very difficult when there aren’t enough desks and your peers are whispering about you. I stayed at home, where there was greater space and better facilities.
I know people who didn’t want to show “personal” work because it would stand out like a sore thumb against the homogeneous content the rest of the class was making. Furthermore, there are other pressures and limitations that restrict creative freedom; a brief in which the student must work in a group making a 3-D installation is very limiting in its nature. At no point apart from at the end of Year 3 was I able to freely make what I wanted to: zines and digital graphic art.
Whenever a student complained about these issues, the tutors would reply by telling us to do what we want in our own free time. It was barely possible to juggle work like this and it felt inconsiderate of students’ time and scheduling. I was lucky enough to have the time to do this, but I still wasted a great deal of time procrastinating as I reeled from my course experience. Of course this was far more difficult for students who spent their time commuting and working jobs to make ends meet.
What this results in is the worst of both worlds: students might lack the strength of personally directed work and the creative experimentation of a truly experimental course. The whole experience was riddled with contradictions like this, as some tutors preached modernistic ideas whilst others stated that modernism was dead.
A solution to these issues surrounding artistic direction could be a form of neo-sincerity: making work with a sincere lens that attempts to objectively communicate a point beyond personal interpretation; the work can stand alone apart from the artist. Within academic circles, this is called metamodernism or altermodernism. This is nothing new; this idea is in line with the consistent values of illustration as an applied art — going back centuries. Whilst the tutors state that their mystified neo-modern art practice is “the changing face of illustration,” this is seemingly invisible in the world outside the institution. Movements such as net art and alternative comics directly affect culture whilst the NUA course’s direction is trapped in a bubble.
With an entire world of art that it’s possible to contextualise your work within, it’s perplexing that a small group of tutors can claim to be progressing an entire genre of applied art. You need only turn on a computer or go to an art fair to see countless examples of illustration REALLY moving forward. The UK has dozens of illustration fairs every year. Artists, illustrators and publishers tour the country to attend them, where they sell prints and comics, and host talks and workshops.
Our tutors’ general incompetence was a defining feature of the course. With scheduling, for example, we had a timetable for the entire year that provided a mostly accurate overview of the course scheduling. The detailed timetable was more complicated and flawed. The specifics of the timetable was often scheduled less than a week in advance, so it felt like school or a fast-paced job, where we were given briefs to fulfill with no participation in the course direction at all. Sometimes it was worse, with us turning up on a Monday having no clue what time we’d get home or what we’d be doing in class. I got off lucky, being someone living in the city centre — it was a lot worse for people with demanding jobs and travel requirements.
“I did my usual 1hr 40 min journey in one Tuesday just to put up one shelf, only to be told the shelf wouldn’t be ready until the next day. I was told Monday it would be ready for me to put up on the Tuesday.”
Most tutors were similarly incompetent when it came to using technology. In Year 2 we typically spent Tuesday mornings being lectured by a tutor in the seminar room in the Forum library. We were told that we went there because the lecture theatre was in use, which is another sign of how NUA isn’t fit for purpose because it has so many students. In nearly every session, fifteen to thirty minutes of our time was utterly wasted by technologically inept tutors who blamed the computers rather than themselves. These were tutors who couldn’t operate a laptop or comprehend the interface of YouTube. He turns the sound up after opening several YouTube videos at once and is blasted by a jarring wall of noise: “The sound isn’t working!” These gripes might seem inconsequential, but when they occur regularly in each session across an entire year, they become tiresome very quickly.
The tutors get quite offended and defensive if their lack of competence is criticised. In Year 3, a tutor had forgotten to send an essential email and was lecturing us about it as if we had a clue what he was talking about. He denied forgetting to send the email when a student said none of us had received it — his word against the assertions of an entire class. He checked his emails to see, in full public display on the whiteboard, and I noticed that his university email account had 700+ unread messages — no wonder he hardly responded to our emails.
Another point is how, as students, we must frequently record our processes and methodology through blogs and write-ups. For people who have to spend so long writing, the fact that the tutors can barely even construct a sentence is just pitiful.
In my experience, the feedback I received at the end of a unit was of similar quality. Feedback and reviews were lackluster: poorly, lazily written and short. The supposedly important parts about my personal development felt distant and rushed, as if they had no idea who I was and didn’t try to understand my work. To me, the feedback often felt like it’d been written in a rush — they were frequently riddled with misspellings, with poor grammar and structuring. For a course that costs more than a year’s working wage, this is appalling! For £9000 a year surely the tutors should strive to make their feedback of as high a quality as possible.
Feedback was typically focussed around process and ways of making money that felt far removed from the reality of the illustration industry. Artwork from outside the realism of the course was usually met with confusion or hostility, with tutors typically suggesting ways to make the work profitable without considering the context or meaning behind it.
Another example of their incompetence, probably the worst, is the case of the tutor who uses complex terminologies to the point that his briefs are incomprehensible. They’re are purposelessly complex in how they feature far too many unintroduced technical terms, archaisms and even figurative language. I personally understood a lot of the language he used, but it’s only because I’ve read a lot of old books about Greek mythology and the like that I understand some of the terms he used in briefings, such as “chthonic” and “vortices.” Because I knew what the terms meant, I was able to recognise that they were out of context, which makes me think he used this language is deliberately esoteric and archaic. It’s difficult to even describe how cryptic and bad these are, so here’s a brief I found in the Year 2 Illustration section of the intranet:
I leave this document having no idea exactly what the tutor wants of the student. Students complained and asked him to use less highfalutin language because it was impeding their education. His response was to say that we’re all intelligent and should understand him — the implication being that, if we don’t understand, we’re stupid! This is ironic coming from a course that demands we consider audience in our work, as the writer of these briefs is apparently unable to write for people who haven’t digested a library of postmodern literature.
Many famous authors of art theory, such as Marshall McLuhan and John Berger, wrote using accessible language to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience. These course briefs, on the other hand, are the pure opposite in their use of alienating language. Whatever point the writer was trying to communicate is lost is how poor the writing is: when your complex language fails to communicate and instead leaves readers feeling confused and intimidated, that’s a failure of the writer and not the reader. The result of this failure is confusion and needlessly hindered learning.
To determine how long we actually spent in sessions at university really depends on how you define what a session is. For example, although our weekly timetable was usually blocked in with four full days and one independent study day, in reality we were often divided into groups that were spit between the week. Each group usually spent around half a day in class at university, but that varied widely depending on whether it was lecture, seminar, tutorials or practical. Some weeks were busy with time-wasting practicals, while others had only an hour of listening to a tutor ramble for the entire week. This makes it hard to put an exact number on the amount of practical time we spent at NUA.
However, we can examine the amount of days that we spent at university. Unlike other universities that have facilities open throughout the year, even out of term time, NUA is completely empty during holidays. Other universities have some facilities accessible 24/7, while NUA shuts at 9pm on Mondays through to Thursdays, closes at 5pm on Fridays, and is completely closed on the weekends.
Term 1 06/10/14–12/12/14 50 days minus weekends
Term 2 05/01/15–20/03/15 55 days minus weekends
Term 3 13/04/15–03/07/15 58 days minus weekends
Total 163 days
Approx. 40 days independent studies 123 days
Term 1 21/09/15–27/11/15 50 days minus weekends
Term 2 30/11/15–19/02/16 49 days minus weekends
Term 3 22/02/16–03/06/16 49 days minus weekends
Total 161 days
Approx. 40 days independent studies 121 days
However Term unofficially ended on the 22rd of April.
Term 1 26/09/16–16/12/16 60 days minus weekends
Term 2 09/01/17–31/03/17 37 days minus weekends
Term 3 24/04/17–30/06/17 48 days minus weekends
Total 145 days
Approx. 40 days independent studies 105 days
Term 1 25/09/17–15/12/17 60 days minus weekends
Term 2 08/01/18–23/03/18 55 days minus weekends
Term 3 16/04/18–29/06/18 53 days minus weekends
Total 168 days
Approx. 40 days independent studies 125 days
During our second year in 2015/16, you’ll notice that the year officially ended a lot sooner compared to other years, which messed up the timetabling of the entire year by condensing it all together. Holidays started sooner, and cut into the terms. Term lengths felt odd. However, although they penned the days so they were technically the same total as other years, (except for 2016/17, which has a notable 20 days less than other years), on my Illustration course, the last hand in was on the 22rd of April, which is more than a month before the 3rd of June. That time was allocated as “independent studies”, with the pretext that it was for dissertation studying. Personally I thought it was odd how there wasn’t a tutor presence available through that time. So if we take the 22rd of April as our unofficial breakup date, and minus the on average 40 day of independent studies we have during the year, I only had around 90 calendar days on my Illustration course in 2015/16.
So why was 2015/16’s timetable so odd? I believe it was due to British Art Show 8, which was held in Norwich on the 28th of June and partly used the university facilities. The British Art Show is a national art show that runs around the country, and brings samples of art world pieces to places outside of London. By reading through an NUA board member’s blog, I found that he planned and desired for the show to come to Norwich and NUA. In the 2016 financial report, they write about how prestigious British Art Show 8 apparently is, and pridefully describe how NUA “was a lead partner”. It ran for 11 weeks during the summer. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to give NUA a stronger connection to the art world? Whatever the reason, they completely reshaped the entire university timetable to accommodate this show, and it perhaps cut into our course term timetables. If that is the case then we’ve effectively had time robbed off us. With the cost and debt of university being so high, to take time out like this is scandalous.
Personally I think the official “120 approx.” days (late September/October to June) that we are supposed to have is too low for the £9000 a year tuition fee. However, I imagine this is a similar story for many arts courses across the UK, as I think universities try to match timetables. Wikipedia however, says:
Meaning that we could be missing 2 whole months worth of term time compared other courses at other universities, despite having to pay the same amount.
Ideology of Fear
“[A tutor] biting my head off in public was nothing short of humiliating. I was supposed to arrive at The Forum at 9:30 (side note, 9:30 starts require me to get up at 5AM in order to get ready and get the bus to arrive in time) however, my 6:50am bus was a no-show, and the next bus would have hit traffic, I wouldn’t have made it in time. Rather than skip the whole day, I thought I’d aim to make it for the afternoon session. That bus was late, but I ran from the bus station and made it just in time, albeit absolutely exhausted. After a hectic rush, I was greeted by [the tutor], yelling at me for being late. In public. As if I were a child. I wasn’t expecting the bollocking, so I explained my reason for being late in a rather panicky state. She seemed fine after I explained and apologised, but it would have been nice if I had a chance to explain myself before being yelled at. It’s not like I turned up late because I couldn’t be bothered, I did try.”
Biased scrutiny from the tutors became so bad that students had one private practice for home and a one contrived course practice based on their assumptions of what they thought the course wanted. This could be motivated by a multitude of reasons; fear of their personal work being invalidated, fear of not getting a high enough grade, peer pressure. It all boils down to fear. Anecdotally, in the case of how someone told a tutor how they disliked having a split practice, the tutor told them to just bring their home style to university like it was nothing, as if this wasn’t an issue entirely of the tutors’ fabrication. I believe that the ideology of the course is an ideology of fear.
Eventually, people’s private passion projects died or mutated as they fully identified with or succumbed to the course ideology. Bullying was propagated under this rigged system. As mentioned previously, nonconforming students were publicly humiliated. People soon became too scared to even raise their hand to ask questions or give comments! As an example (from early Year 3), I questioned a transphobic lecturer and soon found out that my peers thought I was a nuisance for it; not because I addressed bigotry, but because I had raised my hand at all and dared to question the status quo. This is not an isolated incident either, with my friends being subjected to similar scrutiny purely for not agreeing with their tutors and peers.
In Year 2 my friends and I made a formal complaint with tutor approval. I shared it publicly because we felt that if we were to attempt to talk on certain students’ behalf, they should know about it. We outlined that our complaint wasn’t representative of the entire peer group, but rather a sizeable fraction of it. This was when we become pariahs, seemingly regarded as a public affront to our peers’ way of thinking and working. Why was this? Some students like the course, and seemingly took any affront to it as a personal attack. Perhaps they need a system in place to feel important, or for their work to feel of value.
Even a cordial relationship with our course-mates became impossible. The tutor who received our complaint had a simplistic answer for us: “This course isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like it, leave.” This dismissed our complaint whilst shirking responsibility, and in my opinion, it’s also massively insulting to the talented people who quit the course. This attitude is so privileged and contemptful. Some of us couldn’t leave because our student loans and debt prevented us from being able to complete another degree if we quit Illustration. Our entire lives had changed to fit around going to university.
The compromise that we managed to agree on with this tutor was that communication between students and tutors was poor. We said that the students weren’t all voicing their concerns to the tutors, and they said that the tutors were unaware of the students’ problems (very “us vs. them”, interestingly). This tutor said they would make efforts to improve this by implementing more discussions and meetings. These “improvements” were never enacted.
The other tutors were aware that we complained but nothing changed. At the beginning of a guest lecture that followed our complaint, a tutor addressed us in front of the entire class, in the lecture theatre. He didn’t address us by name, but I think what he declared was clearly aimed at us. He took out a little serviette with some writing on it and read out a little speech about how wrong we were to criticise the course, never naming us. Honestly I can’t remember it in detail because I was unprepared, but it was very creepy and you could tell that people in the room felt awkward about it, as they had no idea what he was talking about. This was in front of the other tutors and a perplexed guest lecturer.
Another tutor suggested we “put [our] problems behind us.” But how could we when no efforts had been made to solve these issues? I think this gaslighted us, making it seem as though the course’s faults were our problem. Pressure is placed on individuals, and never the system at fault. Many conversations like this felt unequal, as if a superior is talking down to the student. Perhaps this is fine if you want to be told what to do; however, I know how in other universities, efforts have been made to make courses more horizontal, with tutors and students participating together to direct the course. These tutors are directors and mediators, rather than having absolute control over the way the course is run.
I should add here that our complaint was addressing not only the course ideology’s effect on the art produced, but how it severely impacted people’s mental health. The problems we complained about weren’t imaginary; they were very real, having negatively affected an entire group of people (Full accounts are included later in this, in the Student Support section). The tutors’ blasé reaction to this only cements in my mind that they don’t really value student well-being. This made clear the modus operandi of the tutors; how they approach critique is to simply gaslight anyone who complains.
There’s an intrinsic link between their imposed artistic values and how they impact mental well-being, and one can’t be analysed without considering the other. This attitude was eventually mirrored by the students in the latter half of the second year, when people who were previously vocal about dissatisfaction seemed to voice their opinions far less. The hierarchical system created a power structure to which students who identified with the modus operandi came to inhabit a tier of their own above the other students, and more on par with the tutors.
I believe anything that shone a light on these issues at hand were either ignored outright or met with cognitive dissonance. One example would be how, as we’re paying so much money per year, we reserve the right to complain; I don’t doubt the students are well aware of this. But to convince themselves that they’re right — and by extension, consider issues by paradigms of “right” and “wrong” — they have to justify their zealous faith in the system even if this goes against logic and/or reality. This is outlined by Sartre as “bad faith.” Students seemed so driven by bad faith that they were unable to understand how people outside of the modus operandi could make strong art and achieve high grades.
Students thought that the course was going to get better (I speak from experience of having spoken with peers). Indeed, at the start of Year 2 I believed that the course would improve, that second year was somehow different to the first. All that my faith achieved was to keep myself in uni long enough that I went halfway through my university funding, making quitting and restarting my education an impossibility. I had a choice between NUA and not getting a degree at all, so I stayed there.
Importantly, this ideology mirrors that of neoliberalism; how markets forces can be related to the individual consolidating power. If you’re unsuccessful under the hyper-competitive rat-race of late capitalism, apparently it’s the citizen’s fault and not that of the system. Fittingly, the grading system of the uni focused on check-boxing neoliberal quantifiable measures, with art being commodified into capital. It should come as no surprise that the ideological values of neoliberalism seep into every aspect of the course attitudes, when on a semantic and physical level, the NUA itself is intrinsically corporate, and, by extension, so is British education post- Cameron and Clegg.
This Guardian article examines the neoliberalisation of university: ‘The party’s over — how tuition fees ruined university life’.
“Students come with really high expectations,” says one senior lecturer at a London university, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Students complain all the time: ‘This course isn’t value for money’, ‘I didn’t get this’, or ‘I haven’t got that’. And I agree with them,” she says. “Our bosses are giving us more and more students every year … So they get less time with us. It’s a 15-minute tutorial. It seems the more they’re paying for the less they’re getting.”
Here are other interesting reads into related issues with universities that might be of interest:
The difference between NUA and many other universities is that universities tend to have a heritage of quality teaching and research. NUA became a university in 2012, demanding the university fees whilst offering none of a university’s benefits. It’s a college with a university’s funding and an ego to match.
It’s usual for hierarchies to be an intrinsic part of how universities are run, but the course feels elitist on top of it. Information doesn’t pass freely. The part-time lecturers, who are busy professional illustrators on zero-hour contracts, were usually left uninformed by the senior tutors. In turn, the full-time tutors have greater access to knowledge but frequently contradict each other in the information they disclose. Not only is their personal and professional advice contradictory; they’ve also been known to contradict each other with disclosure of scheduling and timings.
The hierarchic elitism is also apparent in the tutors’ conduct. The part-time lecturers are often late because they’ve had to travel from London or elsewhere using an unreliable train service. They’re professional and apologetic, explaining why tutorials are running late. This is contrasted by the full-time tutors’ consistent and seemingly intentional lateness, while is in spite of them living locally, with no explanation given as to why. Talks, for example, are often ten minutes late because the tutors are chatting with a friend at the front of the room, with students loudly chatting as they await the call to attention.
Ironically, student lateness or absence is treated with patronising severity. The university kept tabs on our attendance throughout our time at NUA and would contact us if we missed too many sessions (before abandoning the register midway through Year 3 with no explanation). As someone who hardly missed anything, all I can say is that I wished I’d skipped class more because it was an absolute waste of my time. It was very formulaic. Here’s a sample process:
1. Go to the uni library to “gather research” on a project in your randomised group
2. “Gather resources” — which means “explore Norwich picking up tat off the floor and in secondhand shops
3: “DISPLAY”: show a display of your “research” across a table
4: Peer review: Groups take turns filling in feedback forms about each other’s displays
Imagine this process taking up a day, resulting in you getting home gone 6pm if you’re lucky. Now imagine this process being stretched to fill a whole week. Both examples happened and they were as demoralising, patronising and wasteful as they sound. Maybe this on its own this doesn’t sound that bad, but in the greater context of everything that was adding together to form the course — the poor teaching, the disorganised scheduling, the wasted time, the patronising staff, the course culture — the experience was exhausting and depressing.
The course’s neoliberal undercurrent really played on my mind when I began to notice it. It became apparent in nearly every aspect of the activities; the formulaic schedule of dull process-focused activities, for example. It felt like work, like we were paying for the experience of role-playing curators in a room with a dead atmosphere. It was at this point in Year 2 that the course really got to me, negatively impacting my mood and creative output as university became a struggle to emotionally cope.
Hierarchies didn’t end with the tutors: the student culture went hand in hand with the ideology of the course. Possibly because the coursework and university demanded it, cliques and one-upmanship were massive. Starting with the Ampersand show, the tutors delegated responsibility to the students by establishing the Curation Team. Volunteers were invited by the tutors to assist in the setup of an exhibition with the promise that the experience would “look good on your CVs.” The tutors began to play less of a role in setup, framing it as being “student-run.” The venue was secured by the tutors, but everything else was organised by this small group of students now acting as curators and event organisers.
‘Another prime example in the complicated topology of occupation is the figure of the intern (in a museum, a gallery, or most likely an isolated project). The term intern is linked to internment, confinement, and detention, whether involuntary or voluntary. She is supposed to be on the inside of the system, yet is excluded from payment. She is inside labor but outside remuneration: stuck in a space that includes the outside and excludes the inside simultaneously. As a result, she works to sustain her own occupation.’ — Hito Steyerl: Art as Occupation
They assumed an assertive role on the Facebook page, with certain students commenting on nearly every enquiry. It became near-impossible to write anything on there without a mascot of the course policing the comments and attempting to represent the tutors. Their duties as members of the Curation Team (“Curatorialists,” as they branded themselves) were massively demanding of their time and effort because they developed many aspects of the exhibitions from the ground up. While I cannot speak on their behalf, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they almost certainly sacrificed their own time to devote it to the university, potentially hindering their own coursework.
The Curation Team made efforts to feature the input of other students by hosting a branding workshop and inviting students to write their own descriptions for their work. An issue with this, though, is how the students had to work within the framework established by the Curation Team. We wrote our own descriptions for our work, but they were all on textured labels bearing one of the team’s designs, so it all still felt very much under their control. Any negotiation or leeway felt dependent on our personal relationships with these students. Personally I hardly knew these people; I respected them as fellow students, but why should any of us have had to address them like they’re our tutors? How can we know they’re going to be professional with the (often personal) information we provide them, when we know they’re unpaid amateurs? And — perhaps most importantly — what has any of this distraction got to do with working in illustration? On a personal level, I didn’t trust the team because they withheld information from the rest of us; the end of year publication was kept a “surprise” — why?
This has all happened under the control of the tutors. We can only speculate as to why. I think it boils down to the tutors’ laziness and readiness to exploit people. Through the promise of a CV accolade, the tutors effectively manipulated a group of unpaid — no, paying — students to do their work for them. Furthermore, the phenomenon of a small group organising events being enough for the tutors to call the shows “student-led” is another point they can advertise the course with. This is in spite of the shows being run purely by the Curatorialists — they weren’t truly representative of myself and my peers.
Personally I feel like my £27k university experience culminated in a show managed by a small team of exploited students who were easily susceptible to misrepresenting their peers. No one should blame them for this as the tutors are purely at fault for using them and causing this to happen.
As of 2010, when tuition fees increased to £9k per annum and student loans were introduced, universities have become classist in how they’re run. Perhaps some universities are fairer on working-class students, but NUA isn’t one of them. 40% of students at NUA come from lower income backgrounds. While it is possible to live purely off a student loan, it requires tight budgeting, which is why many students work whilst in university. NUA has hardship loans, but these result in even more debt. Wealthier students didn’t have to work and had greater access to events and materials to supplement their education with. This is obviously unfair, but their course made no effort to address these issues and instead painted all students with the same brush.
Favouritism was rife and became a factor in how the course operated. Take for example this “illicit coach trip” for seven students. One of my peers was emailed it by mistake:
And we only know about this case because it accidentally slipped through the cracks, so imagine what else happened that we simply don’t hear about. Furthermore, tutors promised a place in the New Designers business showcase to students whose work “fits in” — thus admitting that many would not be featured. Across NUA, the promotion of our work nationally is inconsistent, with all film, fashion design and animation students being represented in London shows whilst other courses have no equivalent. Illustration lies somewhere in the middle of these, with only a fraction of the course having access to national exposure. The tutors stated that this was because they would only accept work that fits New Designers; potentially some of the most business-ready, corporate work ripe for investment or exploitation. My work would never get in for example. My friends’ work would never get in. Despite paying the same amount as our peers, we received fewer opportunities.
‘The “tutors’ favourite” thing is a thing that happened to the last year’s students too, because I remember some people saying ‘the tutors have picked their faves and now the rest of us are being ignored’ (think like that Ollie guy being their star student or something?) I think the others in that year were really aware of favouritism.’
The other side of the coin is what doesn’t happen on the course. There was no New Designers equivalent for people who didn’t make explicitly corporate or pseudo-conceptual work: nothing for graphic art, zines and comics for example. This clearly indicates that the course, through its links to industry and events, favours work that it’s effectively groomed students to make. What are we paying for?
It’s subtle, but implications of classism and elitism have been apparent throughout my time at NUA. The tutors assume that everyone can afford to travel and live without working. “Just move to London!”, “Take a year out and tour the country to see where you want to go!”, “Just travel to Europe, it’s really easy.” One tutor voiced disdain for job centres. Perhaps they’re not even conscious of this, but they’re inconsiderate of how financial constraints restrict people, and how the wealthier people on the course have greater opportunities than those from lower income backgrounds. For example, some people are unable to travel to gather research material and visit exhibitions, and they cannot afford expensive materials to produce their art with.
“The University welcomes students from a diverse range of backgrounds and previous educational and professional experiences, with approximately 40% of students coming from low income backgrounds, and around 30% of our students registered as having a disability requiring some form of additional support. We encourage applications from all those who wish to develop their creative practice in the context of the University. Applicants are assessed on their potential to succeed on their chosen course based on their portfolio of work and interview. Details of the application process and course requirements are published in our prospectus and can be accessed from the University website. We aim to ensure that no talented student be prevented from applying to the University, or from completing the course while they are with us. This includes the provision of a generous bursary package, a hardship fund which provides grants and emergency loans for those students suffering financial hardship, and the co-ordination of a number of widening access and student success activities, to enhance the progression and achievements of under-represented groups in Higher Education.” — NUA: “NUA Financial Statement 2016”
NUA claims to welcome and represent students from a “diverse range of backgrounds and previous educational and professional experiences” but I’d argue that this isn’t apparent at all in how the course is conducted and how, with tuition fees the highest they’ve ever been, the university welcomes less and less lower income students each year. Later in this essay, with regard for the university’s systems and infrastructure, I will discuss the NUA’s treatment of mentally and physically disabled people.
In this section I’ll discuss the issues with the university on the whole. This section might be more relevant to NUA students in general.
Infrastructure and Accessibility
The NUA calls its site a “campus” when it’s really several unconnected buildings in the city centre. The university’s marketers are redefining what a campus is (like how the illustration tutors redefine terms so they can manipulate impressionable students) There’s no comparison between the UEA’s purpose-built university campus and the eight buildings of the NUA, a former college. Also, unlike an actual campus university, NUA doesn’t have facilities open 24/7. The university is open weekdays from 9am until 9pm — closing 5pm if it’s a Friday — so naturally the facilities can feel subpar when we’re on a tight deadline and can’t even access them at any point in time. Likewise, the student shop has a good selection of products but it’s only open from 10am until 3pm, so on many a busy day at university I’ve not been able to fit in going there.
Furthermore, the university is not entirely accessible despite claiming to “welcome students from a diverse range of backgrounds… and around 30% of our students registered as having a disability requiring some form of additional support.” I don’t know a great deal about the student disability support — I’ve heard that people with dyslexia receive speech-to-text software that’s paid for by the university.
I don’t know any students who have physical disabilities that reduce their mobility, so I can’t comment on how the university experience is for them, or present any accounts from them. Speaking as an ignorant physically able person, the accessibility seems good; there are elevators and the St George’s Building has a side entrance. However, not everywhere is accessible to people who have reduced mobility. The first year illustration studio is only accessible by walking up a narrow stairway into a room at the side of the Guntons Building. My peers questioned the accessibility of the course multiple times in feedback — what happens if someone passes out and an ambulance is called, for example — and a tutor said “That’s up to them” (the emergency services), as if the institution should be absolved of responsibility.
This studio is a dead-end three storeys up in a building. I never felt safe in the Year 1 studio because there were no fire exits at all — the only way in or out is via a narrow stairway. It’s a room typically crammed with 80 to 100 students, with the the stairs opening into a landing outside the printing studio. The windows don’t open fully, so students couldn’t possibly jump onto a firefighters’ inflatable. The stairs are all made of steel, with metal rails (rails that are always warm, fire or not, because they have pointless lights in them). We’ve not been told anything like “don’t go down the central stairway in a fire because it will probably be superheated.” There’s are stairway accessible at either side of the building that are marked as fire exist, but they’re not accessible from the potential death trap of the Year 1 room.
NUA claims to give training and induction to all students and staff in their 2016 financial statement. This is true, but needs improvement: we had a single health and safety lecture in our freshers week and then it was never brought up ever again. With not a single fire drill in my three years there, a fire would be a recipe for disaster and no doubt result in an appalling amount of casualties. How is this building allowed to be open?
We’re expected to use Facebook groups as a course requirement. Many of my peers and I were already in the 2014 Illustration Freshers group before our first term began. I don’t remember how I was added to it — I think I might have learned of it through the NUA’s housing lists that help future students to find housemates.
Emails, results, university information and events are available through the NUA Intranet, which is essentially the online hub that students and staff are reliant on. Nearly all of the basic university information a student might possibly need is available through the Intranet; for example, Harvard Referencing is detailed and the course pages update with PDFs. However, it’s very hard to navigate. Lists of links are arranged into tight columns of small text. Everything is very samey looking, and the way sections are categorised within others doesn’t seem logical — Harvard Referencing is in the Library section, Employability and Creative Jobs are two separate sections, and many of the links open up to pages with hardly any content on; the Intranet equivalent of Wikipedia stubs. It all felt very automated and regimental.
Also like I mentioned earlier, some of the Illustration tutors can barely operate a computer, so they were as incompetent with the Intranet as you might imagine. A frequent issue in my first two years was that the tutors would think they had uploaded work to the student Intranet when they had only uploaded it to their private tutor-exclusive version of the site, or not at all. Some of them were fairly responsive via email, but this was to solve basic issues that, under a more efficient system or leadership, might never have occurred at all.
The poor and inconsistent communication between student and tutor resulted in the course’s Facebook group being used as the primary medium for course discourse and discussion. This is the case across the entire university, with the admins of the groups being PALs (students who act as mentors to the year below, but typically appear at a few talks before vanishing for the year). There were no tutors in the group to act as mediators or directly share information. It felt like the students had to pool information to understand the poor scheduling and vague briefs. The student leadership of the group became problematic also, with the admins banning people who were at odds with their clique; something that becomes an issue when a student-run Facebook group is essential to a student getting the information they require for their degree.
Reliance on the Facebook group became an absolute necessity when the Curatorialists became a factor in how the degree show was run. All of their announcements were made through Facebook, totally excluding anyone who doesn’t use Facebook or who isn’t a member of the group.
Even engaging this on their level ignores the elephant in the room: that we are expected to use Facebook at all.
Marketing and Promotion
So, NUA might run into problems with its branding and promotion — how can it advertise its “campus” facilities when it isn’t actually a campus university? NUA markets itself using the city of Norwich itself as its “campus.”
No student bar? (edit: it closed shortly before I started at NUA, so people go to the local one instead) No nightclub? No actual studio space in the uni? No worries, according to NUA, the city of Norwich has you covered! What I found most interesting about these NUA blogs is how the student bloggers advocate constant spending whilst advertising local businesses and corporations. Instead of discussing university facilities at all, Jordan and Jose suggest that students go to coffee shops as if coffee’s a phenomenon unique to Norwich.
Meanwhile, this advertisement uses the student’s speech about what he learned on his course as a selling point. Fitting the university’s focus on neoliberal measures on success, he advocates having no personal style because “that’s all the better for you.”
Jose advocates to “splurge for a treat” and they both write like frequent spending is part and parcel of being a student at NUA. What’s there to even do here if you can’t afford constant drinking and dining? Contrary to these articles, I’d argue there’s very few cheap food venues and a lack of street food altogether aside from the market.
Jose also says we can “live and breathe Norwich” which is made sadder by the bleak reality of living and working there. There’s little actual art industry in Norwich. There are few large corporations or businesses employing artists and designers — this can be seen with a quick look at local businesses and job sites. There are so few job openings that demand is high, making it near impossible for even professional designers we know to get jobs. It can also take a while to find menial jobs here, possibly because of how small Norwich is. Travel by train is dependent on the extortionate and unreliable Abellio Greater Anglia. Apparently the motorways to Norwich from the rest of England are quite poor too, with no dual carriageways, but I can’t comment because I haven’t travelled out by car.
Norwich is actually rather expensive in comparison with other similarly sized cities — what follows are points that might be more important to someone graduating in Norwich. Rent in the outskirts, near UEA, is more affordable, but NUA is in the city centre, where the rent is highest. The cost of rent across the board is steep, which, coupled with council tax and bills, would make it hard to save money at all for someone working full-time minimum wage hours. While this is common across the country, the landlords and agencies are exploitative — Kent Management and Prolet are notorious amongst students. NUA doesn’t address the costliness of Norwich at all. Any private renting is all on the students, with no university support.
Established in UEA in 2016, the Norwich Association for the Co-operative Housing of Students (NACHoS) states that it’s “a politically engaged not-for-profit organisation aiming to offer affordable accommodation to students in Norwich” adding, “Profit-driven landlords, estate agents and university management exploit students. We aim to reduce their control over the student housing market by empowering students to collectively manage, maintain, and eventually own the properties they live in.” There seems to be a general lack of discourse online about the issues of Norwich’s high costs of living and renting and NACHoS is one of the only sources of information I’ve even been able to find about this.
Another important factor in NUA’s self-promotion is how it can use quantified data and accolades to present itself as what might appear to be an institution of objective good quality. Recently NUA was awarded “Gold” by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
TEF is a government-initiated framework that uses quantitative factors to gauge the quality of teaching in English universities. It isn’t a ranking used in a leaderboard, like other surveys, because it doesn’t compare universities to each other. Student satisfaction and graduate earnings/employability are measured. In the Norwich Radical, Laura Potts describes how the National Student Survey is largely used for the data.
NUA is already using the Gold award to promote itself, with this endorsement being the first thing a visitor sees when they visit the NUA website. This is in spite of how TEF is reliant on the National Student Survey (NSS) for data. The National Student Survey is based purely on the quantification of student opinion, data which is further manipulated by discouraging criticism of universities. Criticism of NSS is becoming increasingly commonplace; in 2017, 26 student unions boycotted the NSS, co-ordinated by the National Union of Students (NUS). The Tory government plans to allow universities to increase their tuition fees, with NSS results being used to justify fee increases.
These results simplify analysis of teaching quality overall. If feedback and public discourse of NUA students is anything to go by, teaching quality — between courses and within them — varies wildly. I can say that from my own experience, the quality of teaching in my class alone is not level at all, with some tutors being working practitioners with years of practical experience whilst others are primarily (largely incompetent) university educators. Verdicts pushed by the NSS and TEF smooth out nuance, critique and condemnation altogether. Unsatisfied students are invisible to these bodies.
Also this is purely a bitter personal speculation, but I’ve mentioned the culture of fear on my course. I don’t doubt that my peers would tell the NSS that the university is flawless in order to better fit in.
A more reliable survey of NUA might the independent Complete University Guide, which measures universities across ten categories. It has a competitive league table for measuring how the 129 top British Universities compare. They use a diverse array of public domain sources to determine each statistic. https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/methodology/
In its latest league table, NUA is at 84th place out of 129, down 22 places from the previous year. In response, Vice-Chancellor John Last said that the figure was so low because of the amount of students: “One consequence of small student numbers is an increased volatility resulting in a disproportionate impact on our position within the table.” How does this justify a decrease of 22 places, when in 2016, the university was just as small? And surely the amount of students has actually increased in that time, if the increasing amount of courses is anything to go by? According to NUA’s 2016 financial statement: “Applications through UCAS for the 2016 cycle increased by 8% compared to 2015, with the 2015 figure also being an 8% increase on the previous year.” So there’s possibly a similar increase in student applications for 2017 also. Also, the categories are unaffected by student numbers, so Last is incorrect in using this to justifying the league tabledrop.
“Don’t rely solely on the TEF when making your decision about what and where to study. Remember that the TEF ratings are for a university and not individual courses.
As with our league tables, the TEF awards do not tell the whole story. Not every course offered by a Gold-rated university will be the best, while universities with lower awards may offer outstanding courses in specific areas.
For a well-rounded view, it is important to thoroughly research your choice of course and university. As well as the TEF, you should use the league tables — both overall, and the relevant subject tables. Check course entry requirements. Read the university profiles, and attend open days. Ultimately you need to ensure that you choose the right course and the right university for you.”
NUA continues to wear its TEF endorsement and use the NSS despite the rising criticism of these frameworks, which I think, upon reading this evidence, shows what they stand for. Will NUA increase its tuition fee costs if the Tories give them the opportunity to? Well, it’s already charging £9k per year for degrees worse than high school courses, I don’t doubt it personally. NUA has never been about value for money.
University Culture and Events
I’m of the opinion that every problem with the NUA is related to a greater issue. The courses are within the structure of the university and the university exists within the framework of how British universities must operate as businesses in order to stay afloat. The culture of NUA, in this manner, is a result of how the courses and university infrastructure operate.
So, as a result of how the courses are run and university is structured — with no modules, no open seminars, no student bar — studying at NUA can make a student feel very isolated. Regardless of the amount of friends a student has, it’s often the case that they’re mostly friends with people from their own course. I believe the reason for this is because opportunities to even see and meet students from other courses in a context warranting conversation are few and far between. At NUA, the the only way to meet other students directly through channels of the university is to share a house with someone who studies another degree.
It could be argued that maybe people don’t socialise enough, or they’re quiet, but the public spaces we operate in aren’t conducive to conversation and meeting new people in my opinion — I’m hardly going to suddenly start chatting to a stressed stranger in the printing room. An unfortunate result of this is how cliques started in my course in many others. Of course you’ll get cliques in every university, but I doubt they’re often packs of tutors’ favourites who get to go to New Designers whilst the others lack any similar opportunity. At NUA, clique memberships are a requirement for success it seems.
Student Union and Societies
On their website, the NUA is not transparent about how small the Student Union (SU) is. The reality is that the SU consists of a president and a vice-president, in addition to an assistant whom the SU had to appeal to the uni to get. Each year, there’s a student election for a new SU president, in which the 2017 one was the first time a president got a second term. The language in descriptions of the SU implies that it’s a separate entity from NUA: “The Students’ Union works alongside NUA.” Similarly, societies are discouraged from having the NUA logo in their logos, supposedly because the SU isn’t part of NUA. However, in reality, it seems more of a subsidiary of NUA; each year, the SU president is made a trustee of the NUA’s governing body, as shown in in NUA’s financial statements.
It pales in comparison with student unions at proper universities, which are absolutely independent of their universities with charity status and staff working round the clock, running events and student support. The UEA student union owns campus shops and property, and can critical of the UEA. When we complained about the course, it went to our course tutor (who was responsible for the issues we raised) and the person who was SU president at the time defended the course, claiming it was marketed as “experimental illustration” (it’s not). I don’t think that the NUA SU can challenge any aspects of NUA because it’s dependent on the NUA (not to mention, part of it) and the staff of two representatives nearly every year, preventing any real change.
The Student Union attempted to address how insular NUA can feel by suggesting students join societies. Anyone can start a society at NUA provided they have ten members. Unfortunately NUA doesn’t have much of a culture of people doing anything outside of their course. Societies often start and collapse within months. With a Student Union which consists of three members and isn’t actually a separate entity from the university, how can any societies have full support? Funding is tight (£300 per society per year). Ultimately, the societies dissolve because the NUA feels hostile to extracurricular collaboration. To run a society is to have another responsibility when you’re already studying a very linear, high-pressure degree. The ideal year to run a society in would be Year 1 (when none of the grades or units actually matter), but this would probably never happen because freshers are new students. Really there should be a plethora of societies for them to integrate into already. Year 2 and 3 are often far too busy to keep a society running consistently (I speak from experience). Ultimately, this feels like an issue that has been relegated to the Student Union. The SU is responsible for societies; therefore societies are promoted as the solution to the lack of wide social circles because, really, what else can the underpowered SU really do.
I think this is really NUA’s issue, as they created this issue through how the courses are structured. Public, open seminars and modules would encourage interaction and collaboration with students studying other disciplines whilst teaching skills and knowledge intrinsic to education in art and design.
Concerning counselling services, NUA says on its website: “The Student Support Manager acts as Counselling Liaison Officer, supported by the Student Union and the serving Sabbatical President. The Counselling Service offers direct access to a range of professional counsellors through the Centre and referral to welfare, medical and other services and agencies. The service is free to students of NUA and is fully confidential.”
“I went for a haircut and I don’t know if I told you but the hairdresser started telling me her sister was on her second year at NUA doing illustration and told me that she was depressed and wanted to drop out — so I was like !!yeah!! That was a huge problem for a lot of students including myself during the second year and it continued into the third.
People I knew — and myself — going on anti-depressants. Self harming. Even feeling suicidal. Having panic attacks. Losing sleep. And excusing the course?!
I said to her that it isn’t uncommon for students to feel like that because I witnessed and experienced exactly the same things in my time in second year.”
I haven’t been through student support, but I have heard many accounts of how it’s not actually in the university and generally results in students being told to take medication, do a gap year, or leave. Speaking personally, my mental health has deteriorated as a result of being at NUA. I still can’t quite remember what not feeling stressed felt like, and at times of extreme stress I’ve had (infrequent) fainting episodes and panic attacks. I was put off wanting to see the university about it because I had heard that the mental health support was generally poor. I felt like there was no one professional at the university who I could talk to about this.
“You should be happy to graduate with a third” was the only response from student disability support when I fessed up the fact that I was becoming suicidal again (to levels that I hadn’t dealt with since I was 15/16).
The last time I bothered with student support was October of this year when my hand was forced to choose going back on medication as opposed to backsliding on my recovery into self harm and substance abuse :’) Substance abuse is a bit of a stretch but I sure as hell turned to drinking heavier to cope with the stress.
I felt like it wasn’t worth dealing with the uni because all they told me was to get in touch with the Youth Service, and the Youth Service at St Stephens made it so hard for me to even stay in touch due to the fact that, well, it’s shit.
The process for extenuating circumstances was way too daunting and I was too ashamed to ask because I’m the sort who is afraid of doctors and the like.
When I was mentioning how my health was taking a hit during winter months due to living in an unheated (privately rented) flat, it was kind of a shrug and I was pointed towards the hardship loans they have because, you know, if I am choosing between rent/food and keeping myself warm, I can totally afford a loan at God knows what rate.
Tutors always looked at me sideways when I mentioned my general health struggles, both the mental health and the carpal tunnel pains that neutered my ability to draw. I wasn’t even looking for pity so much as understanding because it was to explain *why* I was having so much trouble settling on work.
Because I planned to take on work that involved a lot of drawing, but obviously if I can’t draw, I can’t do that now can I?
I wholeheartedly believe that these issues are caused and exacerbated by the Illustration course in these instances. I’d never felt so stressed and paranoid in my entire life. Part of the reason why I co-wrote the letter of complaint in second year was because of the detrimental effect the course culture had on people’s minds. Ironically, the outcome of this resulted in me feeling more paranoid and stressed than I’d ever felt in my entire life. I felt like my peers and tutors were out to get me. I didn’t care at all for grades, but my degree was essentially holding me ransom, and I was scared the tutors would fail me, rendering my time here worthless.
Finance and Resources
NUA keeps its private finances quietly listed on it’s “governance” webpage. Here are some PDFs I referenced:
Report and Consolidated Financial Statements (2016): http://www.nua.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/NUA-Financial-Statements-2015-16.pdf
Report and Consolidated Financial Statements (2015): http://www.nua.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Norwich-University-of-the-Arts-Accounts-signed-KPMG.pdf
Research Strategy 2015–2020: http://www.nua.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/NUA_Research_Strategy_2015-2020.pdf
Now there’s a LOT to unpack from these files. I’m not going to review their financial reports because they’re not my area of expertise and I’d probably get it incorrect. I’ll just cover some points relating to what I’ve discussed already: information relating to the issues of neoliberalised universities, the way the university is structured and the methods by which NUA achieves things by redefining what words mean.
Worth mentioning is the Ideas Factory, a business incubation programme: http://www.nua.ac.uk/ideasfactory/ The entire “business” section of the NUA website lists business practices that would typically be outside the comfort zone of a university. It it located away from the student buildings, in it’s own recently constructed sites.
Ironic how a businessman can hire out an expansive boardroom when our visiting lecturer had trouble securing a lecture room from our course leader. The Ideas Factory uses university money, money it got from students, for it’s infrastructure and ventures, despite how it is hardly integrated with the students at all!
Also, because this whole section of the University is so disconnected from the undergraduate students, it is pretty much free to do whatever it wants. I remember having to past these degrading paintings for weeks.
In their 2016 financial statement, the writer admits to the creation of new undergraduate courses being a way to get more students in and of course, through doing this, make more money. Due to the neoliberalisation of universities, as stated in NUA’s the financial plan, NUA now makes most of it money through student’s tuition.
They state how they need to expand and accept more students if it is to survive, despite how John Last has gone on record to describing many if this issues of NUA lie in how small it is.
During first year, the amount of student on the course was crazy. It was very evident that the course was not fit to house 100+ students. All 100+ were pact into a single room, knocking elbows on crowded tables. However, as time when on and students dropped out, the facilities were able to cope better with the decreases in numbers… around 40 students left the course? It’s hard to tell what the exact figure is but it was very high.
Cynically, this makes me suspect that the course accepts more students than it can handle, knowing that many will drop out. But that’s just a theory. When I voiced criticisms of the course, the course leader strongly implied that “the course wasn’t for everyone” and that many drop out “because it’s not for them” — the implication being that I should leave. Other students that I know that struggled on the course felt similar sentiments against them. In the financially report, students are described like a product, and are literally treated like cash flow assets. So this does suggest to me that the course and NUA doesn’t seem to care much about it’s high level of drop outs, or student welfare unless it’s fair-whether, as they seem to view students as statistics.
NUA’s focus on recruitment is strong, as seem in it’s financial report for 2016. This is in keeping with what the student blogs for NUA were appearing to attempt to achieve through their advertisement of Norwich life.
While this might be expected of any post-2010 business-come-university, for NUA this comes with issues. As detailed previously, NUA is sorely lacking in resources. As a corrupt offshoot of Graphic Design, standalone Illustration probably shouldn’t have existed, let alone newer courses like User Interface Design and Game Development. The media students already share resources, taking turns to use the hardware in the Monastery. Where will these new courses be held? How will they supply them with enough equipment and resources? (If these courses are anything like the older ones, they probably won’t.) Furthermore, an influx of students will only increase the amount of people in potentially dangerous buildings such as the Guntons Building.
These consistent 8% increases in student applications applies to every course to an extent. Due to the neoliberalisation of universities, as stated in NUA’s financial plan, NUA now makes most of its money through student tuition fees. NUA states how they need to expand and accept more students if the institution is to survive, despite how the Vice-Chancellor John Last describing how many of NUA’s issues lie in how small it is. British universities charge more for foreign students, which is another factor in its expansion plans; they want to appeal to a global audience. However, it’s clear that the Illustration course alone is not fit for the 100+ students that it accepts. They know students will drop out, as indicated by the lack of desk space and the course leader stating how the course “isn’t for everyone.” But regardless of whether a student stays or leaves, they’ve been saddled with the debt that comes with going to NUA, and for the institution, it’s a gain regardless.
It seems that NUA is splitting courses just so they can list more courses, whereas, in the past, they had larger courses with pathways that students could specialise in. This is not uncommon at all today even, especially in art schools abroad. Our tutors like claiming fame for how Gemma Correll studied Illustration at NUA when Illustration was actually a subsidiary of Graphics at the time.
Our tutors advocate that students be something of a jack-of-all-trades who specialise in not one particular skill. Contrary to this, the way in which courses are divided, with no unifying modules and seminars anyone can go on, is contradictory to this idea, as mentioned previously. I agree and disagree with the article. Firstly not everyone can afford for their three years at university to be so unfocused. For some of us this is our one and only shot at getting a degree, and we cannot afford to be so carefree with our time that we don’t specialise or try to develop skills. However, in a university with modules and more freedom to learn different disciplines, students could possibly pick and choose classes and projects so that their learning could be personally directed and suited to the individual. My friend who studied design in Italy went to an art school where this was the case, resulting in them choosing projects that suited them and ending up in a more fitting peer group than the one they started in.
I’ll discuss the degree show as myself and my peers saw it; as Illustration students and as general students of the NUA. In my opinion, the issues mentioned here are generally consistent across most courses.
In our Illustration degree show we could put forward how we wanted our displays and installations to be put up. We filled out proposal forms and submitted sketches of what we wanted. Personally I would prefer there to be more freedom to show work that isn’t of a gallery context, as publications are generally relegated to being in some corner.
Purely in terms of setup, there were some specifications with little leeway — we had to use certain frames and shelves — but other than that we seemed to have a lot of flexibility. My shelf was too narrow to fit much on and it was cut poorly (the shelves had a white coating over them that had cracked and split from being cut). For other students, however, it was a different story entirely, reflecting how unequal and unfair the course is.
I asked for three shelves, was told it was too excessive so I had to rethink, but someone else could have 8.
Having to pay £75 for frames because [tutor] insists we use those particular ones. He also told me they were ‘cheap’. Yes they’re lovely and they’re half price, but my monthly wage is £152. £75 is a lot of money to me.
I heard about other students who were discouraged from making more ambitious work by their tutors, resulting in their confidence being knocked. There’s definitely a hierarchy at play, as ever. The entire show felt biased in favour of the students who were selected to be in New Designers / the Curationists, in terms of how a lot of the work was positioned in the rooms and promoted through the Curation Team’s social media. Not once were some of the students publicised by the Curation Team — people who were supposed to be representing us — despite many people posing with their art and sharing it on Instagram! Again, I think this is the conceits and prejudice of the course elites at play.
Unequal and unfair presentation of students was not exclusive to our course. I can’t speak for all courses, but I know that the Game Art students had no say whatsoever into how their work was presented by the tutors. The 2D artists had an image per person that the students picked from their submissions. Many of these images were printed at such a low dpi that pixelation is visible. Some students were disappointed in the images their tutors chose, as they weren’t the images they would have chosen themselves. Also, ridiculously, each student probably had enough wall space for three or four images! Perhaps the tutors only went with one image per person as a way to cut costs? My friend suggested that the tutors may have even been reusing prints from the Norwich Gaming Festival.
The worst issue with the degree show was the lack of security.
In Illustration, my peers had nearly all of their zines stolen. A student, who designed sleeves for vinyls, had her discs damaged. Some students had all of their publications taken. Other courses suffered similarly, with a fine art student’s inflatable installation being knocked down and photography books being handled poorly. Again, publications were being taken, as if the visitors thought they were free.
I don’t blame the teacher of the unruly children who might have caused the problems, nor do I blame the invigilators or students. I think the reason these incidents took place at all is because the university hadn’t offered the work proper, paid protection. In Illustration, the tutors and Curatorialists recruited volunteers from the course to take turns to watch the work — however, this led to a unpaid volunteers sitting alone, attempting to simultaneously watch two large rooms of exhibits. Meanwhile, the art shop downstairs was consistently manned by two or three senior staff members, presumably because the shop had had a lot of thefts last year. Eventually the university did employ its paid Ambassadors students to invigilate the exhibits, but it was too little too late, with only a couple of days of the show remaining. The damage had been done. (And even then, apparently some of the paid ambassadors did a poor job invigilating)
Right okay so I get in to do the 10–12 shift. There’s [an ambassador] there already. She’s turned NOTHING on, and rather than sit in the doorway between two rooms, she decides she’s just gunna watch one room. I go around on the hour to reset everything as she’s clearly not bothered. 12–2 shift, two other students arrive and sit near the doorway, but in the room with the student ambassador, who asks the two students if she can just leave. She doesn't ask me, who’s been there all bloody day, making sure everything’s on and reset. Wtf are they paying these people for?!
As of 10/07/2017, the university still hasn’t issued a statement or apology concerning the student work that was stolen or damaged. We all worked for three years to get to that point and, presumably, NUA won’t claim responsibility because it’d make them look bad to the public, and rightly so.
Furthermore, the university took 25% of the profits from the sold artworks. Frankly I find this insulting: we’re already paying £9k per annum to be at NUA. Our tutor suggested that to ensue we don’t lose profits, we ramp the price of the art up, but surely this would discourage visitors from even buying the work. This could be seen in the shop, as people were selling paperback publications for £20+ and prints for £10+. I didn’t feature any work — to charge extortionate rates for prints and zines which aren’t incredibly high quality is embarrassing in my opinion, and (assuming I’d make a sale at all) I wouldn’t want profits from my work to go to the university.
The degree show felt corporate to the point that fiscal value pervaded nearly every aspect of it. In the language of the degree show branding, connotations of fame, wealth and consumer culture take precedence over quality of art and creative expression: “See them before they’re famous” , “Unexpected item in bagging area.” Their prioritisation of financial gain over artistic expression can be seen in how the degree show was monitored for security: for most of the show, the shop was overstaffed whilst the galleries were sparsely overseen by volunteers.
I have a question for the NUA students and graduates reading this: What is a dissertation, and how would you describe what one is to someone who doesn’t know?
I would’ve said “A dissertation is that long essay we do in the last year of uni so we can get a degree” and I’d be right but barely scratching the surface. That answer is merely what NUA presents a dissertation to be. Compare this with the dissertations of a larger (dare I say real) university and the NUA “dissertations” are really lacking.
In Year 2 and early Year 3, strong emphasis was placed on research. As I outlined previously in this piece, the NUA and its staff have a tendency to redefine words to suit their agenda. Research is another one of these:
NUA does conduct actual research to some degree — for example, some of their researchers are studying how art fared in specific historical periods. Why does NUA have such a focus on research in the first place? This can be found in their “RESEARCH STRATEGY 2015–2020” pdf. Here is evidence as to how NUA’s research secures government funding. I think this places an emphasis more on the financial motivations for arbitrary research rather than considering actual knowledge and information that could inspire or benefit people. This area of the university felt very separate from the students, as we heard nothing of it across our three years at NUA.
Dissertation and research
The course’s attitude towards the student’s dissertation can be used to examine how pedagogy is conducted at NUA. In simple terms, a dissertation is a way of documenting specific and in-depth research. By looking into contemporary design pedagogy of high ranking art universities around the world, the focus outlines how design and creativity learning needs to take a strong skills and ethnographic approach, to relate the practice to the real world. This is outlined in Design Education: Learning, Teaching and Researching Through Design, Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice, and Design Pedagogy: Developments in Art and Design Education, which are all contemporary examinations into the nature of higher education in design. To quote Design Pedagogy:
‘Recent research into design teaching has focused on its signature pedagogies – those elements which are particularly characteristic of the disciplines. Much of the most productive work has been based on core design theory, although this has often been enlivened by philosophies and approaches imported to the area. Most importantly such work has utility when it recognises the visual language of designing, the media of representation used, and the practical realities of tackling design questions. Increasingly the twenty-first century sees these activities in a global context where the international language of the visual artefact is recognised.’
These books begin to outline how there’s a strong theory, praxis and research basis surrounding contemporary design teaching at an academic level outside of NUA. There is focus on an international understanding of how certain imagery can act as “language” when used in a design conscious way (visual language).
However, at NUA, although they try and use the terminology and mimic this pedagogy, the rigor and contemporary grounding is not met or pushed in the same way. Research carried out by students acts strictly on an individual level, and is not put into a lens that matches it to ethnographic levels outlined in the books. This means that work feels very myopic and contained within NUA. The seminar and lecturers are brief at best, and all guest lecturers mainly spoke of their business centric or insulated academia circles. They all talked about themselves and their practice, and never of ethnographic research or wider theory that could benefit highly academic levels of education. Seminars were rare and feeling almost none existent. In the final term, there were no seminars at all, and all academic pathways were completely dropped. Instead, the whole course focused on the end of year show, with seminars instead talking poorly about industry practices.
Without this contextual grounding into the practice standards happening on the cutting edge, NUA falls behind in it’s quality of student lead research. Students would create poorly structured and bias online surveys, and them ask their friends on Facebook to fill them out for primary research. Paired with the myopic and individualistic nature of the course, research was used to enable that line of thinking. Often discussions or seminars over research were used to perpetuate the modus operandi, as research methods and subjects that fitted with the course philosophy were constructively criticising and praising regardless of the quality of them meeting the standards outlined the previously linked books, while research directions that demanded and would benefit from more rigorous tutoring and more academic seminars and educations are going to be worse off. This means that regardless of what a single student “puts into” their time at NUA, it will always be stunted by the low quality of teaching and systems of education at NUA. A more academic student would benefit from a better quality university.
I was told that the students of NUA demand a more neoliberal, work and brief oriented education, and do not value a knowledge or education based curriculum. I was told by a senior tutor they want a vocational based course. This conflicts with the research based direction of the course and the demands and standards of other academic institutions, and results in students feeling good about themselves and their direction regardless of the actual quality of what they are learning. Students that would want to follow an academic pathway after graduation would be left woefully under-educated in their subject and field compared to students graduating on a more quality contextual studies based course.
Frustratingly, NUA boasts strong research practice, but the reality could not be further from the truth. Whether or not lecturers are carrying out and publishing research papers, it bodes no influence in the research or quality of teaching for undergraduates.
Students were pushed to do 5000 word dissertations over the standard 10,000 word ones. All through the year, research based work is talk about and pushed by the course, but once the dissertation was completed, all of that was dropped to focus instead on the end of year show, with a new drive of the course to create marketable work. The sense that the dissertation was simply “a thing to get out of the way” felt palpable. Dissertation submissions were on the 13/01/17, meaning the time spent writing the dissertation was considerably less compared to most other institutions. The time with tutors each week was very low, reducing to simply once a week in the 3rd year.
Interestingly, course favouritism was used to anecdotally outline to the second years (about to start their dissertation at the beginning of their third year) how the dissertation was a rewarding way of furthering the individual and the myopic practice that dominated the course. For my own year, a student from the previous year was constantly used as the model student that we should all aim to replicate; he would do talks about his practice and the tutors would often use his work and practice as an example of good practice. On the face of it, his work looked research-oriented, but really it was insular in nature and wasn’t grounded in the context of contemporary practices that Ioutlined earlier. By giving him so much focus and attention, the course pragmatically and effectively set him and his modus operandi values and practices as the standard that students must follow to get similar attention and grades. Meanwhile, other voices, critical or contrasting approaches to the dissertation who were equally getting high grades were never show to us. The same thing happened from the course favorites from my own year towards the second years.
Usually, once a dissertation is submitted, the university will publish it at it’s library. Sometimes dissertations are published beyond its institution, and it’s common for dissertations to be accessible online. However, at NUA, dissertations seems contained within its institution, and only select examples of dissertations are show to students to simply illustrate what they expect students to produce. This seems outrageous, as it renders our dissertations effectively pointless as no one will go on to read them.
The point of a dissertations at NUA seems to legally allow them to have bachelor’s degrees, but it seems like the real point of a dissertation to being a peer review documentation to learn and share from is not respected at NUA. The criticism outlined here is seemingly representative of art education on a whole. As described in an article for Art News “So What’s Wrong at the Glasgow School of Art? Quite a Lot, According to Student Protesters”,
“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.”
A question I think needs to be asked is what place does research and a dissertation have in relation to art and design education, if art schools now operate like NUA? It seems NUA’s transition towards a more university structured education has been sloppy, and it’s lost direction of what it is or aims to be. At one hand it wishes to be academic, but fails to hit the standards of a truly academic university that has been academic for many years. And on the other, it wishes to be vocational and industry oriented, but it is both hindered by its own academia and isn’t willing and/or able to teach students the reality of industry and the skills students need to make it in the real world. NUA right now is role playing at these factors while not committing or being genuine towards any of them. So students end up with a simulation of a university education within NUA’s bubble. The danger is that, if NUA is all a student has ever experienced of the world of academia, they could be lead to think this is what it’s like across all institutions, when in reality it probably isn’t. How can you miss what you never had or experienced? So not only does NUA operate in a bubble, it’s in it’s best interests to operate in one too, or else people will realise it is all a facade.
University ended uneventfully. Term-time ended without an announcement beyond a tutor wanting to meet for drinks, which I didn’t attend for obvious reasons. We sorted out the degree show, that came and passed, I moved out. I went for coffee with some friends whilst the graduation ceremony happened. I walked home plainclothes whilst my old classmates flocked about in robes. University ended without an announcement beyond some tutors wanting to meet for a picnic, which I didn’t attend either.
I’ve left NUA now, and the relief has only just began to sink in. I’m not quite sure what will happen next, but I want to move in with my friends and start a collective together. I’m getting over the experience but I don’t quite feel positive yet. Not happy, not sad. The future is vague. I have a BA Hons Illustration degree that should come in the post at some point, but I don’t know how much employers care about it, or precisely how important it in comparison with to a strong portfolio and CS Suite competence. If you’re an undergraduate reading this, take note: your grade doesn’t matter. Just pass with strong work.
I feel I should add that I wasn’t a lazy student; I was generally attentive and punctual. I wanted to be pushed, taken out of my comfort zone and I expected to be stressed, but in response to getting a solid education. The most “fun” I had was when researching and writing my dissertation, because it was actually difficult, involved creativity and I could feel myself learning through all the books I was reading. It was rewarding. I was usually on time and didn’t skip class (which is a pity, in retrospect, as that time could have been better spent on anything else). The arbitrariness of the grading aside, I consistently got 2:1 grades — some of the contributors of this piece of writing even got Firsts. When trivial social aspects of university make the experience a struggle, attaining good grades and passing feels largely meaningless when people who toe the line get the same result. At NUA, it was things that should have been stress free that was stressful, while areas you’d expect to be stressful such as the “education” did not challenge me enough.
The friends I’ve made are great, but was university itself worth it? No. I can’t help but feel like my skillset would be entirely attainable by someone at a college who went on an apprenticeship or placement. Many internships and work placements I’ve looked into are actually accessible to 18-year-olds fresh out of college, which raises doubts into the worth of a degree. However, for all its arbitrariness, many employers will only employ applicants who have a degree. So maybe it was worth it for the degree itself, but the course itself, and the university? No.
If you are considering going to university, research as best you can. The issues featured in this writing occurred at NUA, but they’re representative of greater systemic issues in British education that follow the neoliberalisation of universities. Perhaps other universities are worse, or maybe they’re better (I assume so) but regardless, other art universities are likely to have problems that mirror the ones mentioned here. £9k a year is a lot of money and for many of us we only have one shot at going to university, so it’s of the utmost importance that it’s as fulfilling and high quality as possible. Fact-check information from multiple sources, Google lecturers, read posts and forums. It pays to be skeptical of educational institutions in these times — don’t make the same mistakes as we did in 2014!
Thank you reading as you’ve got this far, and best of luck in the uncertain future.
[edited 15/07/17 — in the “Marketing & Promotion” section I forgot to mention how the student bar closed before I started at NUA.
edited 17/07/17 in the “Art as Occupation” section — previously there was a photograph here which was taken of a presentation screen one of these talks. It was an artist’s illustration depicting how, on the internet, no one knows you’re a chicken plucker. The image was used in the tutor’s talk to promote their own ideas: hiding a working background from potential employers in how you present yourself online. The artist asked us to remove the image.]
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