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Crafting Professional practice through Higher Education

A collaborative PhD between King’s College London and Crafts Council UK.

This research project aims to assess the development of sustainable practice in the UK’s contemporary craft sector. One route to professional practice is through the development of new craft professionals in higher education. The project investigates how knowledge acquisition and the development of such practices take place, in order to consider how the sector could be more resilient for the benefit of makers and audiences.

The Crafts Council is delighted to be partnering King’s College London in this project. The findings will inform the Crafts Council’s business planning. Supported by a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholarship, Lauren England is researching how people studying craft in Higher Education learn the professional and entrepreneurial skills they need to continue their creative practice once out of education.

Lauren is posting updates throughout her PhD. If you would like to contact Lauren about her research please get in touch at lauren.england@kcl.ac.uk or via Twitter @england_le.

September/October 2018

With just one more year to go of my PhD project, in this blog I reflect on findings from my interviews with current crafts students on their decision to study a craft subject at degree level, and their choice of higher education provider.

A university education

The growth of apprenticeships as an alternative to higher education, including in the craft sector, is to be applauded. However, current provision is no where near comparable to higher education and there are issues regarding disciplinary representation and access for female and BME makers as highlighted by Crafts Council research.

When asked why they had chosen to study a craft subject at degree level mature students often reflected on how they were now pursuing a long-held ambition to study a creative subject from which they had been deterred earlier in life. Meanwhile, for some younger students attaining a degree was seen beneficial as a recognised qualification that opened up opportunities for employment (in and outside of the craft sector) and potential post-graduate education.

Both young and mature students identified that higher education offered a broad educational experience and that there were greater opportunities for material exploration, gaining diverse skills and developing individual interests than could be accessed through an apprenticeship, workshops or self-teaching. Access to a variety of specialist knowledge, equipment and advanced technology through the degree was an important factor here.

This suggests that despite significant decline in higher education provision over the last decade and a growing emphasis on apprenticeships in education and economic policies, universities and specialist arts colleges remain key players in the development of craft skills and professionals.

Student choice

The recent higher education policy debate has been dominated with the issues of student choice, what represents ‘value for money’ from a degree, and the metrics students (and their parents) use when deciding on where to go for university. In my previous blog and policy paper I discussed how negative messages presented in government policy and the media regarding employability in the creative industries are impacting craft higher education, particularly in student recruitment. In this post I look at the drivers and influences for those studying a craft subject that would undoubtedly be missed by a ‘consumer-style ratings system’ to guide student choice, as called for by universities minister Sam Gyimah.

The main reason given for choosing a particular higher education provider and course was the opportunity to engage with materials and disciplines that were offered. This could be either the range of materials on a mixed media course or specialist disciplines such as glassmaking which have a limited presence in higher education. Access to facilities (equipment, machinery and studio space) at the university was linked to the students’ perception of opportunities on offer. This suggests that the downsizing of technical facilities and reduction of material and workshop-based teaching as a cost-saving measure would negatively impact student recruitment and satisfaction.  

Another prominent influence on course and provider choice was location. Both mature and young students stated they had purposefully chosen a course that was close to home or in a particular region in the UK (i.e. South West, North East, Midlands or London) for financial reasons, work and family commitments or to maintain contact with their support network (family and friends). This highlights the importance of regional provision of craft higher education, something that is threatened by course closures across the country.

In contrast to common opinion on what influences student choice, the league table position of the university, graduate destinations and salary data were not present in the choices of my interviewees. This suggests that for those who are intending to study a creative degree, the metrics that could be captured by a digital tool would fall short in providing adequate information from which to make an informed choice. We therefore need a more nuanced understanding of what drives student choice in different disciplines to support students in finding the best higher education provider for them.

As I move into my final year of writing up I will be bringing together my findings on professional development in the craft sector and how knowledge and skills acquisition in higher education could enable greater resilience and sustainability in early-career practice. I look forward to sharing my conclusions and recommendations with you throughout this period.

Earlier blogs

July 2018

I have now finished the data collection for my PhD. While it’s great to feel that I’m progressing to the next stage (analysis and then writing up) I thoroughly enjoyed conducting the interviews. I am grateful to everyone who gave up their time to speak to me, without your willingness to take part in the project it wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you in particular to the staff at my case study locations for being so welcoming and for your support with the organisation.

I collected a lot of data, 82 interviews to be precise, so I’ll be working through it all over the next 6 months and identifying the themes I will discuss in my thesis and other papers. While I can’t give too much away at the moment, one thing that struck me that I wasn’t necessarily intending to explore in depth was the challenges craft educators face around cuts to arts education in schools, the ongoing marketisation of higher education and pressure to demonstrate value for money, as mentioned in my last post.

Considering what I’d started to observe in my research, my concern for the future of craft education intensified with the publication of the Industrial Strategy and Creative Industries Sector Deal in late 2017/early 2018, and the announcement of the Post-18 Education Review in February 2018.

Using findings from my PhD, I’ve written a policy paper which you can read here [link], reflecting on how the current social and political discourse is shaping and defining the value of creative education, and how this discourse has begun to impact undergraduate craft higher education in England. I should probably warn you that it’s not particularly good news…

With the aim of raising awareness about these issues more widely I also wrote a blog for the higher education policy website WonkHE, and presented the paper at the Creativity Knowledge, Cities conference in Bristol.

For now it’s back to the data and analysis. I look forward to sharing more findings and reflections from my PhD with you as I reach the end of my second year and move into writing up. Hopefully it will be better news next time!

April 2018

I am now half way through my PhD! I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the case study phase of my project, it has been fantastic meeting makers from all over the country, and I would like to say thank you to everyone who has taken part and shared their experiences and knowledge with me so far.

From the start of this project I have been interested in whether professional development and gaining an understanding of creative practice as a business is of interest to craft students, and whether it is something they want to get out of their degree. In this post I consider the following question and provide some initial reflections from interviews with current BA students in their first year of study at my case study locations:

Q: What do craft students expect to get out of their degree?

Three key expectations of higher education could be observed in the responses from students across all four locations:

  • Skills and material knowledge: The most prominent expectation was the development of making skills and material knowledge, both specialist and across a range of material disciplines. Working with different materials and processes was also seen as a way of developing a personal understanding of what material they may want to specialise in during their degree and for their future practice.
     
  • Direction and career progression: Another key expectation was gaining a sense of direction (creatively and professionally) and identifying a career pathway post-university. Perceived enablers of this process were opportunities for work experience (provided through the University and/or independent pursuit), learning about their profession and industry requirements, and developing a professional network.
     
  • Business skills: Running their own business and making a living as a self-employed artist, designer or maker was the primary aspiration and this was something that students expected to form a component of their degree programme. It was expected that they would be guided towards this knowledge through teaching, but also that it was a resource that could be accessed outside of formal lectures through discussion with staff members who had their own professional practice.

While I support the argument that the purpose of higher education goes beyond providing a route to getting a job, given the current debate around the value of higher education, the importance of graduate employment outcomes and student satisfaction ratings in such measurements, and the rise of the student consumer, the question of whether universities are meeting students’ expectations cannot be ignored.

If craft students are coming into university with an expectation of gaining a combination of making skills, business skills and a route to professional practice, it is therefore important to ask how higher education is meeting these expectations, and where there is scope to enhance what is offered. This is one of the key aims of my PhD project. However, this is not to say that we should be adopting a business-school model in craft education. In fact, given the high priority of skills amongst the students and graduates that I have interviewed (more on that another time) there is a strong case to be made for retaining an emphasis on technical skill development and material knowledge developed through hands-on making.

This is particularly relevant given the tendency for Universities, when faced with rising costs, lower student numbers and pressure to demonstrate value for money, to close or amalgamate courses, downscale facilities and shift towards more classroom or computer-based learning. Based on my investigation of students’ choice of degree, my view is that the further reduction of facilities and workshop access would negatively impact student recruitment given the significant role of making facilities in attracting students to a particular university and course. 

These are key issues that I will be considering in the second half of my PhD. Over the next few months I will be finishing up my case studies and moving on to the analysis. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and findings with you as I go through this process and work towards a conclusion.

January 2018

I have now started the fieldwork stage of my PhD where I will be conducting interviews with educators, current students and graduates from four craft-based degree programmes. So far, I have interviewed 23 educators and students and I’d like to thank everyone that has taken part. In this post I provide some initial reflections from these interviews on the perception of craft(s), reasons for studying craft, and perceived skills needed for professional practice.

In the context of university education ‘craft’ appears to hold a precarious position. Among staff, it was often linked with the challenge of contending with social perceptions of craft, or crafts in particular, as a hobbyist activity. There was also a clear distinction between what they saw as ‘good’ professional craft and amateur craft or ‘craft with a small c’. For first year students craft was heavily associated with individual pursuit, skill and the handmade. Although, they also indicated a struggle with hobbyist views of craft, including those held by their friends and family. Among staff these associations were seen as hindering student recruitment, and also prospective and current students’ understanding of craft as a viable career pathway.

Nevertheless, a passion for making was clearly identifiable in my interviewees’ reasons for studying craft. Mature students either returning to university or studying for their first degree tended to reflect on a lack of encouragement to pursue creative education first time round, and how they were fulfilling a long-held dream later in life. Others, who had gone straight into work after finishing school or college spoke of dissatisfaction in their job/career and how a desire to be more creative had led them to higher education. Among younger students it was suggested that following a creative pathway at university had always been their plan, although they highlighted some concerns with what such a degree would lead to. Common to all was a love of making, a sentiment that was echoed by educators.

At a time when creative education is being marginalised in schools and crafts courses across the country have been closed or rationalised, it seems important to highlight the desire of all interviewees for a creative outlet, and advocate for access to craft education at all levels. It also appears there is still work to be done in cultivating wider recognition of the value of craft and the need for creative skills, both technical and transferrable.

On that note, I was particularly interested in what skills educators thought were necessary for sustaining creative practice after university. Their responses centred on the importance of a broad skill set, including both making skills and soft skills.  Being confident, ambitious, resilient, and having good interpersonal skills were also seen as crucial, and it was reflected that in many cases these attributes carry a greater weight than talent in sustaining a creative practice. The importance of resilience was also highlighted by the graduate makers I interviewed in my pilot study. If these soft skills and attributes are a key factor in developing a professional practice and determining who will ‘make it’ it is important to consider the circumstances (social, economic, cultural, educational) that might facilitate the development of such broad-skilled, confident practitioners, and who might therefore have an advantage in the field.

Over the coming months I will be conducting more interviews and exploring these themes further. I look forward to sharing more thoughts and findings with you.

Call for participants: I am currently looking for UK-based makers who graduated between 2015-2017 from the Universities and courses listed below to take part in an interview about their experience of higher education and professional practice:

Plymouth College of art – BA Contemporary Crafts, Jewellery or Ceramics & Glass

University of Sunderland – BA Glass & Ceramics

Staffordshire University: BA 3D Design: Crafts, Ceramics or Jewellery

London Metropolitan University: BA Furniture & Product or Textiles Design

October 2017

I have just entered the second year of my PhD at King’s College London and I’d like to start by thanking everyone who has supported the project and shared their knowledge and experiences with me so far.  This year has gone incredibly quickly and I have learnt an incredible amount about craft and academic research.

In developing this research project I have become increasingly interested in what craft means to people who pursue it as a profession, and how it is presented within the higher education system. In Thinking through Craft, Glenn Adamson discusses how craft is notoriously difficult to define, particularly given the expansion of the field and growth in interdisciplinary practice. He also noted at the Making Futures 2017 conference that the term ‘craft’ is not neutral; it carries associations with tradition, weakness and localisation that may be ignored rather than addressed when replaced with ‘maker’ or ‘making’. This was reinforced in a recent conversation I had about craft with a London-based furniture studio; they suggested that the overuse and misuse of terms such as ‘craft’ and ‘bespoke’ has led to practitioners finding other words to define their practice so as to avoid common misperceptions. I am interested in the idea that ‘maker’ has been adopted as a means of neutralising ‘craft’, particularly in relation to my own observation of the diminishing presence of craft in the professional identities of crafts graduates who prefer to define themselves as ‘designer makers’ or ‘artists’. This is discussed in my annual report and is a theme I will explore in the next stage of my research.

For now, here are some of the ways that craft has been described by people I have talked and listened to over the last year, some complimentary, some contrasting. Perhaps craft is all of these things and more:

Craft is a demonstration of love and dedication

Craft takes time and is an exhibition of skill

Craft is fluid, adaptive and innovative

Craft is bespoke and handmade

Craft is slow, messy and hard work

Craft has a narrative that can be read through the making process

Craft is having an understanding of design, material and making

The further I get into this project the more I recognize the complexity of my subject. I believe that the polysemic nature of craft is an asset, although I am wary of the continued interdisciplinary expansion of practices under its banner. In reference to sculpture, Rosalind Krauss highlighted the problem of using a ‘catch-all’ term as representative of diverse practices: ‘the category has now been forced to cover such heterogeneity that it is, itself, in danger of collapse’ (1979, p.33). In the pursuit of authenticating and claiming representation of increasingly diverse practices, it is important that craft is not pushed to a point that risks a loss of meaning or understanding of the sector.

The themes and early reflections highlighted in these blog posts and my first annual report for the Crafts Council will be developed through case study investigations. Over the next year I will be interviewing crafts students, educators and graduates about their experiences of higher education, professional development and creative practice.  As my understanding of the challenges faced both by higher education and early-career makers in promoting and sustaining creative practice grows, so does my resolve to develop practical applications from my research. I look forward to keeping you updated on my progress. 

June 2017

Since my last post I have been exploring the literature on craft, entrepreneurship and creative identity in greater depth and continued with the secondary data collection and analysis on professional development in crafts higher education discussed in previous posts. I also conducted a pilot study with a group of talented makers from the Crafts Council’s Hothouse programme. These discussions and processes have helped me to refine my subject and, I hope, strengthen my study.

As a result my research has refocused slightly to form two distinct but highly connected strands. The first explores pedagogical framings of craft and craft work – how craft work and creative practice is presented in higher education and how such ideologies influence the professional awareness and development of crafts graduates. The second seeks to identify the skills needs of early career practitioners in developing sustainable creative practice post-graduation – what are the priority skills, how are these developed and what additional support is required both within and outside of higher education.

In considering craft work ideologies I follow the definition of ideology given by Deuze (2005:445): ‘Ideology can be seen as a system of beliefs characteristic of a particular group, including – but not limited to – the general process of the production of meanings and ideas (within that group)’. By analysing the values, and meanings attributed to craft work and creative practice today, both individual and institutional, I hope to define a new framework for craft work ideologies that reflects approaches taken to contemporary practice. I am also interested in alignment between ideologies presented by institutions and those portrayed by their students and graduates. This will be linked with the second strand of my research in terms of how the skills priorities of students and graduates and the skills provision within institutions may link with their ideological approach to craft and creative practice.

While these two elements are still very much under development, I would like at this stage to share with you some early reflections from my pilot study with Hothouse makers.

Entrepreneurial alignment was low amongst the group who tended to associate entrepreneurs with ‘business men’, money driven commercialised ventures and mass production. However, this may be more of a semantic issue arising from traditional definitions of entrepreneurship as, upon reflection; makers could recognise a degree of entrepreneurialism within their own practice.
Mentors appear to be a strong form of support offering both professional, business support and support for creative (ideas) development. Mentoring and support relationships were found in established practitioners, educators and peers.
When seeking business support to establish and/or develop a professional creative practice there is a need for mentors and advisors who understand the logistics of creative business and the creative processes involved in order to provide effective support. This may be particularly important for makers whose work is conceptually driven.   
Makers noted challenges in gaining access to the market, particularly the art market, following graduation – i.e. gaining gallery representation and collectors. This was seen as a potential barrier to professional development, particularly for graduates pursuing a more fine-art orientated craft practice.
The discourse around creative practice, business and entrepreneurship presented within higher education training appears to influence graduates’ perceptions of their own practice. This could indicate a need to explicitly talk about creative practice as a business in order to increase graduate awareness of the realities of pursuing a career as a creative practitioner.

These are still early reflections and will be developed through further interviews and analysis throughout my PhD project. I look forward to keeping you updated on further findings as my research progresses. If you would like to contact me about my research please get in touch at lauren.england@kcl.ac.uk

February 2017

I am now five months into my PhD project and it has absolutely flown by! 

Over the last few months I have been working on an initial data collection and analysis of professional development practices in higher education, to get a sense of what methods are being used to develop the professional competency of future makers. I am planning to collect secondary data from over 100 undergraduate courses in England that specialise in or include a crafts discipline and will be analysing this to identify common practices and disciplinary differences in professional development. I will also be exploring how entrepreneurship is positioned within course marketing. 

At this very early stage in the investigation I would like to share with you some of my initial thoughts on the data I have already collected on 47 craft courses across England. 

My first reflection is that very few courses promote their connection to craft, despite disciplinary links, with preference given to terms such as ‘design’, ‘art’ and ‘making’. There are exceptions to this, but the general omission of ‘craft’ within course promotion suggests that despite the most recent craft revival and value given to ‘craft’ when used as a marketing tool, this value has not been translated across into the education system. While this may seem somewhat trivial, I would argue that as educational institutions currently provide the main training route into craft, an attachment or aversion to the term craft impacts both the practices of future professionals, and the craft sector overall. For an eloquent reflection on identifying with or against craft, I refer you to Daniela Walker’s article ‘Craft’s identity crisis’, in the Jan/Feb 2016 edition of Crafts.

I have also identified a number of common practices that are mentioned explicitly within course material as contributing professional development. These include external/live projects and briefs; contact with visiting professionals; taking part in competitions; developing a portfolio for exhibition; internships and placements; and learning from industry experts. This list is not exhaustive, and I intend to use interviews with students and graduates within case studies to explore how their experience of professional development training in higher education compares with the content listed in course material. I will also look to establish the perceived efficacy of particular practices in order to develop a sense of best practice. 

My final reflection at this stage regards the positioning of entrepreneurship and enterprise. This is approached very differently by the institutions I have reviewed so far, with some courses staking a claim to the development of entrepreneurial skill sets and business acumen, while others do not (explicitly) engage with entrepreneurship at all. Again, through interviews I intend to establish whether a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship within curriculum has a perceived impact on professional development, if it leads to higher self-identification as an entrepreneur among craft students and graduates, and what this means for contemporary craft practice and education.

November 2016

In October this year I started my PhD at King’s College London in the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, supported by a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholarship. Over the next three years I will be working in partnership with the Crafts Council to research how people studying craft in Higher Education (HE) learn the professional and entrepreneurial skills they need to continue their creative practice once out of education.

I myself studied Glass and Ceramics at undergraduate level at the University of Sunderland. While I decided at the end of my degree that the creative practice route was not for me, my experience of studying craft at University was hugely valuable. Having found my way into the world of academia and research, I have focused on contemporary craft practice as an area that has not received much academic attention from those working outside of the field. In particular, my research has focused on the role of HE institutions in the craft sector and through my PhD I will be exploring how crafts makers develop professional capabilities, both in terms of learning practical business skills and developing an awareness of entrepreneurial, creative careers.

The Crafts Council’s Studying Craft 2016 report shows that in 2014/15 there were over 17,000 people studying craft subjects at undergraduate level in HE. Although this is lower than previous years and the provision of HE craft courses has declined significantly (50% since 2007), HE still provides an important route into craft professions. By working closely with the Crafts Council and craft practitioners, students and educators, I hope to explore what skills and knowledge aid in developing and sustaining a creative practice and how this can be facilitated in HE through entrepreneurial education.

While a PhD is by nature an academic pursuit, a key aim of this partnership is to produce real-world impact and applications from this research. I will be posting updates throughout my PhD and look forward to sharing the journey and outcomes with you.

A policy and pipeline problem in craft higher education

There is a disconnect between policy and creative education whereby recent policies have been advocating for the creative industries as an economic growth sector (worth £92bn GVA and supporting two million jobs) whilst simultaneously devaluing creative skills and failing to acknowledge disinvestment in arts education.

Participation in arts GCSE subjects has fallen by 25.6% over the last five years, 14,000 fewer students took creative subjects at university level in 2017 compared with 2016, and craft HE provision has fallen by 50% since 2007/8. The decline has been associated with the introduction of educational performance frameworks in schools and universities, negative perceptions of the value of arts education among pupils and parents, ongoing debate around ‘value for money’ in higher education and a political emphasis on STEM over STEAM. This rhetoric is manifested in the policies and recommendations outlined in the Industrial Strategy and Creative Industries Sector Deal which prioritise digital skills and maths education as means of developing the talent pipeline, whilst failing to address national disinvestment in arts education.

In the higher education sector, the proposal of a system of differential tuition fees determined by economic measures of ‘value for money’, as suggested by Damian Hinds on the launch of the Post 18 Education Review, inherently disadvantages creative subjects and also fails to account for the wider contribution of higher education (creative and non-creative) to society. There are stark contrasts here with the Robbins Report (1963) where it was stated that 'it is just not true that the total return on investment in education is measured adequately by the same yardstick as investment in coal or electricity’.

I argue that these recent policies and positions are indicative of an ideological denial of the value of creative education and creative skills. Whilst conducting research for my PhD on craft undergraduate education in England I came across some key challenges faced by craft educators in relation to this social and political discourse.

  • Falling student numbers and challenges in promoting creative pathways as a viable career option to students and their parents
  • Students requiring more foundational skills development in the first year of their degree due to a lack of engagement with resistant materials in schools
  • Poor measurement of craft graduate careers and ‘success’ by metrics such as the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey or Longitudinal Employment Outcomes (LEO) data
  • Negative messages presented in government policy and the media regarding employability in the creative industries and raise awareness of the transferability of creative skills to students and employers
  • Difficulty demonstrating economic efficiency in a square-metre per student measurements given the high space, material and equipment costs of courses alongside their small student cohorts
  • Managing the amalgamation or closure of degree courses, downsizing facilities or threats to workshop space, and a decline in contact hours dedicated to skills-based teaching

The political disconnect and the issues highlighted here create a talent pipeline problem at both ends that is detrimental to the development of the skills and material knowledge needed for innovation, the creative application of craft knowledge within and outside the sector, and economic growth.

There is an undeniable passion and will to support creative education in the UK, and growing evidence of resistance among the creative community. However, localised or extracurricular activities cannot be sold as the answer to the systematic removal or downgrading of arts in schools and higher education, both of which threaten the prosperity of the creative economy and the ecosystem of the creative industries.

We need more research into the impact of disinvestment in arts education in order to develop evidence-based narratives around the value of creative education and creative skills that can be used for policy advocacy. This argument needs to be made to government ministers, change makers and sector stakeholders with the power and will develop creative, industrial and educational strategies that recognise the true value of craft and creative education to the UK’s creative ecology and economy.

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