A Time of Unprecedented Turmoil and Change: TNG Talks to University of the Arts London’s Student Union Officers
As the UK begins its journey out of lockdown, at the Net Gallery we’re keen to learn more about the needs and concerns of the next generation of creative professionals who are preparing to enter what was an already changeable sector, now buffeted by a global pandemic. Having spoken last week to Slade Society president Katie Mess, today we continue our series on student life and well -being by moving our attention to the University of the Arts London (UAL), an institution that is ranked second in the world for Art and Design, according to the 2020 QS World University Rankings.
Offering courses in art, design, fashion, communication and performing arts, UAL is made up of 6 colleges – Wimbledon College of Arts, Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication and London College of Fashion – and is currently home to a diverse body of 18,000 students from 130 countries. Its notable alumni include Sir Quentin Blake, Pierce Brosnan, Cressida Cowell, Peter Doig and Rachel Stevens.
We spoke to UAL Students’ Union officers Eleanor West (Activities Officer), Yasmeen Thantrey (Campaigns Officer), Dylan Wilson (Education Officer) and Pinky Latt (Welfare Officer) to find out what life is like at UAL in 2021.
The Net Gallery: How has the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown affected your work as UAL Activities Officer?
Eleanor West: As an officer serving my second term, 19/20 and 20/21 academic years have been completely incomparable as far as the type of work I’ve been doing. Whilst the pandemic has postponed many of the events I’d be working on, it’s increased the volume of policy, academic and lobbying work the student union has and as a result I’ve become more involved with this work too!
TNG: Have you been able to keep any of your usual activities running in any form?
EW: The activities team and I have been working with clubs and societies to keep their groups running – this year we’ve been focused on the community building aspects of our student groups. Societies’ activities have been slightly easier to transfer online and we’ve seen some real success with lots of events that have been put on that have transferred well to the online platforms. Sports are slightly more complex to transfer online as you’d imagine, but at UAL we have a good ethos around competitive sport: that it’s about the playing and community rather than the league tables.
We’re all disappointed with the latest BUCS announcement, but our students recognize that keeping people safe is our top priority. I’m overwhelmingly proud of all our committee members that have persevered with their positions during the pandemic. This year more than ever student lead activities are vital in keeping students connected.
We’ve learnt a lot from moving our activities online, and hope that students will consider implementing an online provision always, as it’s an amazing way of connecting students all over London (and the world!) and has made our activities more accessible to a diverse range of students, especially those with disabilities who had previously experienced barriers to attending in-person events.
As a University with 13 campuses, we have always struggled with centralising in-person events, as most students at UAL identify more with their college than the overarching brand of UAL. For example, as a student from Wimbledon you might never have interest in going to the Central St. Martins campus. The online events break down these barriers as running an event for UAL students doesn’t then have a college automatically attached to it.
Even though we’re coping and persevering, it’s by no means an equal experience for students studying at UAL, and we’re all excited to be able to return to in person events in the future.
TNG: You are currently lobbying for better student mental health services at UAL, an issue which is especially pressing during this global pandemic. How is this going? What are things like for UAL students right now?
Pinky Latt: Lobbying for better student mental health support at this time is challenging, needless to say! Things have been incredibly difficult for UAL students since March 2020, and it will likely continue to be this way for the rest of this academic year. Coming from an arts institution, students have had to face the unique struggle of trying to complete an arts degree amidst a pandemic, with extremely limited access to studios and materials and resources.
Not being able to practice art in the way we need absolutely affects mental wellbeing, on top of every other concern such as health, cost of living, being separated from loved ones, etc. All of this has led to weeks and weeks of wait-time for students in accessing UAL mental health appointments.
At this point, to meet the demand for mental health support, there must be greater investment in support services. The good news is that this year Arts SU has successfully lobbied for this investment, with UAL committing to recruiting more mental health professionals! The university has also promised to extend counselling hours, which will be helpful for students and should hopefully reduce waiting times.
Peer support is also really beneficial at this time. To combat greater student loneliness, Arts SU set up a Companion Scheme that connects students across UAL based on interests or liberation groups; this has helped a huge number of students at a time when making new friends is really challenging! Additionally, I’ve partnered with the charity Rethink Mental Illness on student-led wellbeing support, which offers students the opportunity to share their experiences and get paid for their work!
Last year we had students from UAL (including Dylan, then a third-year) contribute to an online zine all about coping with Covid, and this year we’re having students collaborate on online workshops; it’s all for students, by students, doing their part to have a positive impact on other people as the pandemic wears on.
TNG: Do you feel that arts organisations and institutions should be doing more to improve prospects for students moving into the art world?
Dylan Wilson: Yes, but I think more than that; the government needs to better understand the role of the arts in our economy and communities. Who can say that they’ve been able to survive the intense boredom (for those “non-essential” workers) of a global lockdown without music, movies, interactive media and the rest of it. The arts world, while attempting to be a driving force for change in many cases, is still very white male centric and as such has A LOT of problems with attainment and progression.
We can always be doing more to confront and recognise these forms of oppression and promote equity within our communities. Thanks to the pandemic of course, these gaps have only widened and this is something we’re continuing to work with across the University. In terms of student progression, the SU is working with Careers and Employability on pushing the University to allocate funds towards this as they are going through alumni consultation on the matter.
Artistic and educational institutions have to constantly move with the times and in a world of accessible, digital, free (or a lot cheaper) content it’s hard to stay relevant. One of the few benefits of COVID-19 is they have forced organisations to value their strengths and weaknesses. No longer are they able to use institutional power to solve student issues. Much of this gravitas has been taken away, institutions and collaborators alike are dropping like flies and new ones are rising from the ashes. This is a time of unprecedented turmoil and change, if any bold moves are to be made, it’s now.
TNG: Do you think lockdown has brought about any positive changes to teaching that could be carried forward, post-lockdown?
DW: Well yes, I think in times of hardship like these we see a lot of push for innovation. Before now, UAL didn’t have mandatory recordings of lectures which in terms of access can be so beneficial especially students that are studying from different time zones, those with specific learning disabilities, or those for whom English is not their first language (which makes up a lot of UAL). There’s also a lot of innovative AI software that’s able to translate real time words into text, these inventions come with a strange duplicity of being exactly what we wanted, but many years too late AND being caused by a global pandemic.
It must be considered, however, that asynchronous learning is not working for everyone, we’ve seen some that are able to integrate this into students’ studies and others that leave it up to the individual. This then leaves students with backlogs of material to watch and no deadline. So of course there is always more work to be done and integration of dramatic changes to the way we teach will take work and, in many cases, a buy in from students that just isn’t possible at the moment.
In this time that further polarises our students we have however found an uptake in support and solidarity in our communities. Our peer support scheme has had many students engage and find unlikely friendships in difficult times. People are adapting their passions into online platforms. There’s so much that’s challenging our institutional systems and colonial histories now and I’m so excited to see the change we can affect in both our institutions and our international creative sector.
TNG: The coronavirus is often described as a “great leveller”, but the negative impacts of lockdown disproportionately affect marginalised groups. Is anything being done at UAL to support those who are struggling?
Yasmeen Thantrey: The pandemic is not a great leveller! People with inherited wealth, savings, and multiple owned homes may view COVID as a humbling experience, but it has drained so many marginalised people who were already suffering from the effects of the Tory government. We’re once again seeing young people and students subsidise institutions where they aren’t receiving government bailouts and expected to sit tight and appreciate their university experience being taken away from them.
This becomes even worse within the arts, where physical learning is crucial for portfolio development and experience. The grade on the paper means nothing without the experience to back it up, and when graduates are being forced to progress, they’re left with unemployment during and after the pandemic.
Can we be surprised that marginalised students are walking away from the arts? Rent prices both within halls and privately leaves little student loan left, and often parents are unable to support their children. After materials, equipment, travel and food it is clear that higher education and the arts are once again reserved for the privileged students with parental assistance.
UAL has annual £1000 bursaries offered to students who receive the full student loan, which doesn’t cover much besides one month’s rent in UAL halls.
After lobbying from Pinky, our Welfare Officer, the Hardship Fund has been opened up to international students as well as home and EU, provided their household income is below £42000. Once again, we see assumptions around students’ home life, which means that many are falling through the cracks. Even for those who have the emotional capacity to complete the application, the maximum is £700, which doesn’t cover a month worth of rent for most.
TNG: On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year of protest against racial violence, police brutality and the glorification of historically racist figures. How were these issues discussed at UAL? Do you feel any lasting changes were made with regards to equality and decolonisation?
YT: After UAL’s anti-racism statement was poorly received by students, staff and the public, they took some time to reflect why. A new anti-racism strategy was created in response to a petition organised by past Education Officer, Anita Israel, and African and Caribbean Society President 19/20, Armani Sutherland, which can be seen here.
UAL took on board the criticism and set out an anti-racism strategy that has been reviewed by students, staff, the SU and Shades of Noir. As a student union, we requested that students were paid for their time when forming a consultation group, especially with the encouragement of students of colour to apply.
Credit where it’s due; UAL has taken lots of action around EDI and anti-racism. They have appointed a Race Champion within the Executive Board, which naturally fell to the only person of colour that sits at that senior level within UAL. These meetings include members across the university, and myself as student representation. In our most recent meeting, Aisha Richards, founder of Shades of Noir was invited to speak on her appointment as Director for the Centre for Race and Practice-Based Social Justice and Shades of Noir joining with the university.
Richards made a point of halting celebrations to highlight the sacrifices that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour have had to make in order for this to happen. There is still so much work that needs to be done, and we must remember the work of those before. Too many people have had to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for the minimum to be achieved