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August 01 2012

More than bricks and mortar: how to make the most of your facilities

Good facilities are integral to good universities, so how can HE leaders finance, plan and manage their estates in a way that leads to gains and not losses? Join the live chat, Friday 3 August

Campus development: everyone's at it. From minor refurbishment projects to more sizeable construction jobs, it would seem - in the UK at least - that appetite for new, bigger and better facilities has defied the austerity mantra.

State-of-the-art facilities are not simply a vanity project. They help attract students, provide a tailored space in which academic staff can teach and conduct research, and are part of the wider distinctiveness and economic strategy.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts it this way: "Research shows the increasing importance of the role of higher education institutions in local and regional economies through knowledge creation and knowledge transfer. Facilities play a crucial role in meeting educational needs and providing places where knowledge exchange can happen. However, they are an expensive commodity to provide and maintain."

And at a time of considerable change in higher education, coupled with a global economy in renewed crisis, many wonder if greater gains could not be achieved by investing elsewhere in the sector - predominantly in teaching and research.

But the question shouldn't be whether buildings are worth more than brains. In an assessment of which is more valuable to the creation of scientific knowledge, scientists or facilities, assistant professor Fabian Waldinger concludes: "It is difficult to evaluate how much high quality scientists and better facilities contribute to the creation of scientific knowledge".

Similarly, a non-targeted injection of funds into capital projects won't guarantee a university's survival. As a recent report into US colleges and universities found, development without a good strategic plan could lead to liquidity issues. The report, The financially sustainable university, explains: "Many institutions have operated on the assumption that the more they build, spend, diversify and expand, the more they will persist and prosper. But instead, the opposite has happened: Institutions have become over-leveraged."

So how can facilities and senior managers finance, plan and manage their estates in a way that leads to gains and not losses? And as technology permeates all areas of HE, what is its role in facilities management? Join our live chat panel to explore what an effective learning environment looks like, what the benchmarks and performance indicators of effective management are, and how to make university facilities financially and environmentally sustainable.

The live chat takes place on Friday 3 August, in the comment threads beneath this blog and will begin at 12 BST

If you would like to join the panel, please send me an email.

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, become a member of the Higher Education Network.


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June 22 2012

Artists of tomorrow rediscover paint's potential

This year's degree shows are teeming and eclectic, but the startling change is the number of promising painters

The lofty central space of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's architectural masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art, is like a Viking hall that has been civilised by soft lines and fine wood. Only, the dark supple beams of this beautiful meeting place have been taken over by a new breed of barbarians: artists.

What kind of student must Mackintosh have imagined working in the sublime studios he built at the start of the 20th century? Probably not one like Rory Price, who has three paintings hanging in the grand hall for this year's degree show. One is called Clusterfuck Concerto Aged 22. It is an explosion of ideas bursting out of a pot, as if released by a spell. He goes for quantity, which in his case does not preclude quality.

In a corridor just off the main hall Price's smaller pictures – dozens of them – are hung in a crazy rag and bone shop of the human heart. They are crazy and likeable. In an adjacent studio, Max Heath shows a portrait that is a surreal pastiche of the 20th century German artist Max Beckmann – A Poor Self Trait.

Art students probably never lived up to the lofty ideals Mackintosh's building seems to demand: it is unlikely they ever did waft through his corridors like so many ethereal roses. In Alasdair Gray's autobiographical fantasia Lanark, a student here in the mid-20th century dreams of creating vast murals. In the 1990s the college produced such students as Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland. This year the crop is as wild as ever. It is striking that some of the most audacious works are paintings and that painting seems once again to be a visual language in which young artists want to experiment and express themselves.

In a tramshed near King's Cross, London, two graduating Central St Martin's students, Isabel Francis Harvey and August Carpenter, have hung strongly contrasting paintings in the same booth. Harvey's are absurdist portraits, such as a dog wearing glasses. Carpenter's are precise yet unreal forms, like genetically mutated fruits from the future. What they share is a lot of assurance.

Their works show the variety of ways in which, on my trail through this year's degree shows, I found the artists of tomorrow taking on the potential of good old pencils and paints. Upstairs in the college's shiny new building, Alison Griffin exhibits a brilliantly detailed and authoritative drawing of a spooky old house. Kim Nazarko shows three haunting paintings of an unconscious man – asleep, ill or dying? These two artists are curious and memorable.

I am not pushing a line here, don't get me wrong, this is not some conservative return to painting at our art schools. The 2012 degree shows are teeming and eclectic, and these baby artists are being creative in an almost infinite variety of media. Look behind Nazarko's paintings at Central and a low wooden doorway tempts you to enter a dark, confined space. To stand up you have to stick your head through a hole in the ceiling – and when you do, you're in a decorated interior a couple of feet high, papered with flowery wallpaper, and brightly lit. Yifan Gao's installation is hilarious disconcerting and immaculately realised.

The range of artistic possibilities explored in the degree shows is glorious and delightfully mindboggling. If you want to see a holographic cabaret, a giant hourglass that measures coastal erosion, a homage to Carl Andre's bricks, a mirrored obelisk, an inflated fabric tube that looks like a Mondrian intestine, a collection of homemade weapons that recall the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, a porn montage, an interactive digital mirror … watch this space.

The shock prize probably has to be shared by Glasgow's Geneva Sills, for a photograph called Self-Portrait with Dead Nude, and Chelsea's Vanessa Scully, for her version of Driller Killer set in the east London art world. This latter is an actual acted remake, 74 minutes long, of Abel Ferrara's notorious 1979 horror film. You can't deny it is unusual.

Horror seems to attract students at Chelsea: if the Glasgow school is an architectural classic, Chelsea's converted military hospital includes a morgue and other spooky rooms that students populate with site-responsive hauntings. What caught my attention was the ghostly voice of art historian Kenneth Clark, in fragments from his 1969 TV series Civilisation, that are juxtaposed with tasty clips from old films in a video installation by Naomi Jones-Morris.

What marks out the best new graduates, in whatever media or none, tends to be a precision and self-knowledge about what they are doing. This is to look at them from the point of view of an art critic – that is, to look for people who might be around for years to come on the art scene. To be a professional artist takes vision, purpose, clarity. I saw strong examples of those traits across the degree shows in all media and (to use the art school terminology) "practices".

But the startling change from last year's shows is undoubtedly the number of promising painters. Where have they all come from? Last year I saw hardly any paintings worth looking at in any of the degree exhibitions. This year there's no doubt that some of the best work was done on paper and canvas, with charcoals and pigments. Which is definitely not to decry Driller Killer E2.


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June 13 2012

London 2012 legacy: the battle begins on a Newham estate

For some, the aftermath of the Olympic Games could bring eviction and disruption, for others, it is a chance to transform their lives and businesses

Competing views about East End life after London 2012 are sharply crystalised amid the public housing architecture of the Carpenters estate in Stratford, which stands on the fringe of the Olympic Park, overlooked by the red spirals of the Orbit tower.

The vision of the planners, led by Newham council's ebullient Labour executive mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is for the Carpenters to make way for a new campus for University College London (UCL), enhancing the life prospects of the neighbourhood and enriching hard-up Newham as a whole.

An estate resident, Mary Finch, takes a bleaker line: "I think that the Olympics has lost me my home." She has lived on the Carpenters for 40 years and is disinclined to depart quietly. "I think they're gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that's got nothing wrong with it, that's standing solid? I do not want to go."

Slow dispersal of the estate's residents, mostly to alternative dwellings nearby, has been in progress for some time. This has been justified for Wales by the need to embrace a host of development opportunities created not only by the draw of the Games and the park but also, just as importantly, by the economic arteries formed by the improved transport hub at Stratford station. Already, the giant Westfield Stratford City shopping centre has been a hit."It's always a balance if you want to do something for an area," Wales says. "What is the wider community getting at the expense of the inconvenience caused to local residents? People in Carpenters are concerned. I would be too. I completely understand that. But with UCL we would get an amazing, top university coming to the area. Our vision is for science and hi-tech providing jobs and skills. It would be such a good offer from the point of view of our kids."

Finch is not alone in being unenthusiastic. Two younger residents, Joe Alexander and Osita Madu, are driving forces in the campaign group Carp – Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan – which has been quarrelling with Wales's pledges to treat residents properly, bombarding him with questions at public meetings. They reason that the Carpenters works well as a community, so why dismantle it? "We're not some kind of social ill or blight on the landscape that needs help," says Maduu. "Somehow Newham council thinks we're a social problem that needs to be addressed."

"We voted for a mayor and got a dictator," adds Alexander.

It is, in many ways, an archetypal urban regeneration conflict between local authorities on a mission to improve, and those on their patch who fear they only stand to lose. Strife also marked the clearance of the Olympic Park site, when a twilit labyrinth of small industrial concerns was removed from the land on which the array of sports venues now awaits the world's athletic elite.

Among them was H Forman and Son, a family salmon-smoking business founded in east London by a Jewish migrant from Odessa in 1905. The proprietor, Harry Forman's great-grandson Lance, had his premises where the Olympic stadium now is. He fought a long compensation battle and celebrated victory with an email to the Games organiser Lord Coe, a former Olympic champion whom he'd been due to cross-examine at a public inquiry. The email said: "You can run, but you can't hide."

The upshot is a handsome, salmon-pink building on a bank of the river Lea, containing not only a smokery, but also a restaurant and an art gallery in a location long called, with glorious suitability, Fish Island. Olympic dignitaries and others now congregate there. The stadium looms across the water. Forman will soon erect a pop-up corporate hospitality venue on a piece of adjoining land he owns, complete with recreational beach volleyball court. Speedo was the first big name to take space in this Fish Island Riviera, and Forman is finalising discussions with others.

"We're going to have some luxury yachts along the riverfront," he enthuses. "Sixty palm trees are being shipped in. We're going to have this beach club that turns into a nightclub."

Forman hopes to emerge a winner from the Games, but says business is still recovering from the disruption caused by compulsory purchase. He hopes to be part of long-term rejuvenation by developing the land his Riviera will briefly occupy, perhaps with a mixture of homes and boutiques, and facilities for the arts community that has flourished in recent years in former warehouses along the towpath in Hackney Wick. Forging links, he invited a graffiti artist to enhance his restaurant's toilets. In the gents, fine silver fish leap skywards above the urinals.

"I think the area was regenerating anyway," Forman says, looking across at the stadium. "But the existence of the park ought to help. I think when people come here they're amazed at how impressive it already is and how easy to get to."

London's outgoing Olympic legacy chief, Margaret Ford, also gives an upbeat assessment of the post-Games future of the 200-hectare park and its immediate surroundings, although she warns that expecting it to be "the catalyst for the regeneration of the whole of east London", has "never been entirely realistic". Citing prior experience with renewing England's coalfield communities, she stressed the need for "continued investment and belief over a long period".

Ford steps down as chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) this month, having led it and its predecessor, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, since May 2009. She says the park should be an example of how you "change the psychology" about an area. "You're hoping that the whole view of investing in east London changes by persuading people that it is a fabulous place to come to and do business and invest."

She accepts that a great fear with large regeneration projects is that the wealth they attract fails to benefit existing residents, many of whom are in pressing need. Canary Wharf, whose glass towers pierce the skyline a short distance away, is often condemned as the ultimate example. "The concern is that the park will become a sort of golden city on a hill surrounded by a sea of poverty," says John Biggs, a former City analyst and senior Labour member of the London Assembly, who represents three of the six Olympic boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking and Dagenham.

Ford, a Labour peer held in high regard across the political spectrum, says she and her board have been "utterly preoccupied from day one" with ensuring that local people derive the maximum value from the post-Games plans, and with facilitating the Olympic boroughs' goal of economic convergence with the richer west and centre of London. She is proud of creating training and schemes and close links with local schools. "The big game-changers will be jobs and changes in educational attainment and aspiration for a lot of families in east London," she says.

Ford will depart with most of the arrangements made for putting the permanent sporting venues and other attractions to post-Games community use, and with decisions in the pipeline for the three big jigsaw pieces not yet in place:

• The commercial occupants, either a fashion hub or digital "innovation city", for the two buildings the media will use during the Games.

• The long-running search for tenants for the main stadium, very likely to include a football club.

• The determination of planning applications for the future development of the park as a residential area and visitor destination.

Five neighbourhoods will form within the boundaries of the park over the next 20 years, with the first, Chobham Manor, due to be completed at the end of 2014. Ford emphasised the importance of including sufficient genuinely affordable housing. "I think we need to remember there was quite a big promise made to the communities in east London about the houses being affordable – either affordable to rent or affordable to buy. I think it's one they are not going to forget."

While pointing out that the LLDC remains committed to 35% of the up to 8,000 homes it plans to see built on the park being affordable – in addition to 3,000 that the Athletes' Village will be converted into – she felt it was a matter for regret for London as a whole that the government's new funding approach means "affordable" rent can now be up to 80% of local market rates, which even in poorer parts of London are high compared with the rest of the country.

"I think Londoners are desperately short of affordable housing. It's definitely short of good-quality social housing [which has far lower rents]. If we mean what we say about needing to house all of our key workers, we need to house lots of people in lower-paid jobs who make this city work then, yes, I would say moving to 80% of market rents will cause some of those people not to be able to afford properties."

Another Olympic borough mayor, Tower Hamlets' independent Lutfur Rahman, who, like Wales, is a member of the LLDC board, has called for more homes for social rent among the 800 housing units proposed for the Olympic Park neighbourhood to be called Sweetwater, which will fall within his boundaries.

Ford, who has 33 years' experience of delivering regeneration programmes under both Labour and Conservative governments, is to be replaced by the Conservative politician Daniel Moylan, the appointee of London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to whom the LLDC is accountable. The selection of Moylan, an experienced councillor in Royal Kensington and Chelsea whom Johnson made his deputy as chair of Transport for London two years ago, has caused some disquiet among political opponents.

Biggs says that although he likes the urbane Moylan – "he's fun to talk to" – he worries that he is not equipped to follow someone with Ford's track record. "The truth is, he doesn't know anything about regeneration." There's an ideological issue too. "The point of bodies like the development corporation is to do the things the market can't or won't, and Daniel is the sort of politician who thinks red-in-tooth-and-claw market forces will take care of everything."

Ford, though, says she's confident Johnson has made a good choice and praises him for allowing her and her chief executive, Andrew Altman, to produce a new masterplan for the park. The one she'd inherited, she says, "pretty much had the place populated by high rise buildings. Why would you stuff it full of flats when it's an obvious family housing neighbourhood, given the green space and the venues? We didn't want to create some pastiche of the Old Curiosity Shop, but a place that had squares and crescents and little pocket parks – the kinds of things that make London quite higgledy piggledy but recognisably London. Boris was hugely encouraging."

She gathered intelligence for the masterplan on "mystery shopping" excursions – chatting to people in cafes and the old Stratford shopping centre. "They wanted front gardens, back gardens for their kids to play in, really good lighting, lots of storage space, nice green spaces, somewhere they can afford and a decent school – it's not bloody rocket science."

When the park begins to reopen for the public next July, its name will change to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Ford believes the royal touch will enhance local attachment: "It's about creating a different feel about the place. It's about people having a pride in it."

Even so, while Olympic borough schools gear up for the excitement of the summer, renaming their classes Helsinki, Tokyo and Beijing, parents express a mix of views about the value of the changes underway. Martin Sadler, a resident of Hackney who works in education and lives with his wife and two daughters not far from the park, foresees a good and a bad side.

"I think this part of Hackney will start feeling a bit more like central London and less like east London," he says. "I've lived here for over 20 years, and it's always been a traditional East End sort of place – a real mixture of people, plenty of cheap accommodation. It's already becoming more affluent, partly because the schools have improved. That brings good things with it, but there are worries too. I think London could be getting more like Paris – that doughnut effect, with the poorer people having to move out of the centre."

That is not the outcome legacy idealists say they have in mind. Time will tell if they manage to avoid it.


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May 19 2012

Engineering: materials and mineral

Study of how things are made and could be improved – including materials science, minerals technology, ceramics and glass, polymers and textiles

What will I learn?
Engineering degrees cover all things related to developing, providing and maintaining infrastructure, products and services that society needs – from researching how to manufacture a product to building bridges and roads.

Students will find themselves studying all, or part, of the life cycle of a product, from conception and design to creation. Science and maths will be the core ingredients, but you will be required to be innovative and know how to use your creative flair within a legal and ethical framework, and in budget.

If you choose materials engineering, you will be entering the most specialist discipline in the engineering stable, which means there are fewer university courses to choose from. It does, however, cover a wide study area, as you will be looking at how everything is made and how it could all be improved. Materials engineering is the meeting point of science and engineering. You'll be required to develop the materials needed for new products, as well as find better, cheaper, quicker, stronger ways of producing those already out there.

If you choose minerals engineering, you will learn about geology, rock mechanics, engineering design, economics, surveying and management. You might focus on blast analysis, advanced-surface and underground surveying, health and safety, ventilation networks, rock mechanics or mineral processing.

What skills will I gain?
Lots. Not only will you have acquired the specific skills to your related engineering discipline, but you'll have learned the practical steps of taking your ideas from the drawing board to the real world. You will know how to solve problems and overcome obstacles, particularly when it comes to considering social and ethical difficulties your work could create. You will know how to work within a budget, be numerate and have good computing skills.

You'll also have an understanding of the legal implications of engineering (health and safety) and how to manage risk, particularly in terms of the environment.

Engineering will involve plenty of teamwork, so you will acquire the ability to argue your ideas, analyse those of others and be able to work towards a common goal.

You should be able to identify customer needs and ensure that your work is fit for purpose.

Chances are you'll get to work on real-life problems, and will probably do a spot of work experience, so you'll have a good idea of how the industry works.

What job can I get?
Careers in manufacturing, processing or in user industries are among the options for materials engineering graduates, perhaps working in research, production or even sales. If you want to research ways of making cars run cheaper and more environmentally friendly, then motor companies will probably want to hear from you. And local and central government are keen to improve their recycling processes, if you were interested in this area. You could also find work in non-governmental organisations, if you don't want to work for the private sector.

Materials and mineral engineering degrees provide an excellent basis for a career in technical management.

What will look good on the CV?
• A knowledge and understanding of scientific and mathematic principles
• The ability to define and develop an economically viable product
• An understanding of the commercial and economic context of engineering processes.


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April 11 2012

Specialist criminals stole £2m Chinese artefacts from university, say police

Thieves who took 18th-century bowl and sculpture from Durham museum probably only in building two minutes, says detective

Police have revealed more details of a highly targeted theft of Chinese antiquities worth £2m from Durham University's Oriental Museum.

Specialist criminals who knew exactly what they were after were probably in and out of the well-secured building in less than two minutes, said the detective leading the inquiry.

They are thought to have spent 40 minutes beforehand surreptitiously making a hole in an outside wall of the museum. The gang used specialist tools to lever out bricks and make a 3ft by 2ft hole to squeeze through, before seizing an 18th-century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain sculpture, almost certainly to order. Overseas buyers with very deep pockets, including some in China where the artworks were originally created, have created a thriving market for such items.

The pieces were taken from the ground-floor Malcolm MacDonald gallery at 10.40pm last Thursday.

The university has been the victim of high-profile theft before, when its Shakespeare first folio was stolen in 1998 and later criminally obtained by local antiques dealer and eccentric Raymond Scott.

The book was recovered, slightly damaged, and Scott was jailed. He was found dead in prison earlier this year.

Police have arrested five people from the West Midlands for questioning about the theft of the Chinese pieces but have not yet recovered either of the stolen artefacts. Both date from the 18th-century period of the Qing dynasty, China's last ruling family.

The large green bowl carved with writhing dragons dates from 1769 and has a Chinese poem written inside, while the sculpture is of seven fairies in a boat, beautifully crafted in translucent porcelain with a creamy glaze and standing about 30cm (12in) high. The bowl was obtained in China by Sir Charles Hardinge, a diplomat in the early 20th century who was noted for his early admiration for Gandhi. Hardinge also collected pottery and precious stones.

Detective Superintendent Adrian Green of Durham police said: "It seems very clear that this was a well planned, highly organised break-in. They have spent around 40 minutes creating a hole in an outside wall and, when it has been big enough, they have entered the gallery and made straight for these two items.

"I am sure this job has been planned for quite some time and I would think the artefacts have been stolen to order, for someone who has already identified a potential market."

One of the people arrested, a 27-year-old man from Walsall, was questioned at a police station in County Durham on suspicion of assisting an offender, and has been released on police bail until June. The other four, a 34-year-old woman and three men aged 56, 41 and 36, were released on bail until June after being questioned in Durham on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary.

The museum's curator, Dr Craig Barclay, said after the theft: "We are extremely upset to have fallen victim to such a serious crime. The two pieces are highly significant in that they are fine examples of artefacts from the Qing dynasty in the mediums of porcelain and hard stone.

"We very much hope that police will be able to recover them and we urge anybody who may have any information about their whereabouts to contact the police immediately."

The museum was closed over Easter, usually a busy period, because of the theft.


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November 21 2011

When art breeds success in the bedroom

Does success as an artist bring you more sexual conquests? Well, yes and no, say researchers

To deal with their realisation that some artists get a lot of sex while others get little or none, Helen Clegg, Daniel Nettle and Dorothy Miell made use of an ancient tool – a tool that mathematicians count among the sexiest of mankind's inventions. The logarithm.

The trio had joined forces, as they later described it, to "investigate the relationship between mating success and artistic success in a sample of 236 visual artists".

Clegg is a University of Northampton senior lecturer in psychology, Nettle a professor of behavioural science at Newcastle University and Miell the head of the College of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh.

Their report, called Status and Mating Success Amongst Visual Artists, appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study gives us barely any numerical detail. It says only this: "The distribution of number of sexual partners for these participants was highly skewed with a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 250 (M=10.67). Therefore, the data were converted to a log scale and [we performed our analysis] using this scale."

That "M=10.67" is the median. Half of the 236 artists had had, each of them, fewer than 10.67 lovers. The other artists each had had in excess of 10.67 bedmates. Or so they told the researchers.

Two lovers. Twenty lovers. Two hundred lovers. They seem almost to be from different universes, the collections of five or six lovers, versus the serial harems of 100 or 200. How to talk coherently about a hodgepodge of small and big numbers?

You do it with logarithms. Roughly speaking (I don't have room here to go into much detail), the logarithm of a particular number tells – measures, really – how many extra digits that number has.

The number 1 has no extra digits. Its logarithm is zero. The number 10 has one extra digit. Its logarithm is 1. The number 100 has two extra digits; its logarithm is 2. The logarithm of 101 is ever-so-slightly bigger than 2 (it's about 2.0043). The logarithm of 250 is bigger still (about 2.3979).

The logarithm is a concise, rough way to compare things across vast scales of bigness and smallness. That painter who's got a new girlfriend every few months? About log 2. That lonely graffiti gal whom everyone shuns? Log zero, it seems.

The researchers used logarithms also when they tried to understand a related set of numbers.

They had computed what they call the "mating strategy index" of the various artists. "Each one-night stand gained one point, each relationship up to a month two points, and soon up to each relationship 10 years or over, which gained eight points. The total number of points for each person was added up and divided by their total number of relationships."

After tiptoeing through all their data and computations, the artists-and-sex researchers decided that "more successful male artists had more sexual partners than less successful artists, but this did not hold for female artists".

• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize


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November 09 2011

Reality check: Student protest posters and placards

Student protests have been notable for their distinctive placards. Jessica Shepherd examines what messages the demonstrators have chosen and why

5.39pm:

We are going to draw the blog to a close now. Thanks for all your comments and to all those who sent me pictures of their banners and placards.

3.58pm:

'Even Thatcher didn't privatise universities'

The government's white paper is unlikely to turn state-funded universities into private ones.

Our state-funded universities are not like our hospitals; they are not part of a government department. They are separate incorporated bodies.

And while they receive less than they used to in public funds - their budget for teaching, research and buildings has been cut by 12.6% for the current academic year - they are still in receipt of £6.5bn from the government this year. Even the money universities receive from tuition fees is under-written by government.

It's true to say that the government is asking universities to act more like private businesses. It wants them to compete with each other more and it is encouraging for-profits to offer degrees. But most of our state-funded institutions are a long way off rejecting public funding.

3.19pm: Support from the US for those protesting today thanks to @ennikukka

3.07pm: Some of the banners are not really reality-checkable, but definitely worth showing... Check out this one

Channel 4 News reporting that one banner reads: "Nick Clegg broke my heart"

2.04pm:

'Fight for free education'

Perhaps in an ideal world, education would be free. But wouldn't that mean making those who never graduate pay through their taxes for those who do? Those taxes would be pretty high too - 40% of young women from all backgrounds now go to university, compared with 32% of young men.

The Green Party is the only mainstream party that still campaigns for a university education to be free. It argues that higher education could be funded through a business education tax levied on the top 4% of UK companies, an idea suggested by the University and College Union, the lecturers' trade union.

Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998. They have steadily risen and, next autumn, universities will be allowed to charge up to £9,000 per year. It seems at best unlikely that they'll go down anytime soon.

1.42pm: HeardinLondon has tweeted this picture.

Let's hope all protesters are like this one ...

1.32pm:

For those who want a bit of light relief from the more serious banners and placards ...

1.23pm: We're getting some good images of posters, placards and stickers to our Flickr group.

Here's a slideshow of the submissions so far:

1.06pm:

'Education not business, stop the white paper'

One of the most controversial parts of the government's university reforms, published in a white paper this summer, was the opening up of higher education to private colleges. The students of for-profit colleges and universities will be entitled to the grants and loans that their peers at state-funded institutions are. The worry is that these colleges will just cherry-pick cheaper courses, such as law and business, and ignore the high-cost ones, such as science and technology. The for-profits are, in many cases, "no frills" with few student facilities apart from a canteen and their lecturers often do not conduct research. The US has come a cropper over for-profit universities with some institutions under investigation for false accounting, fraud and high drop-out rates. The feeling among many is that these institutions are far less accountable than publicly-funded ones. It's bums on seats, not quality education that matters, some fear. However, it's too early to say whether the business interests of these organisations will override their mission to offer a good education.

The white paper goes before the Commons in May next year. It's probably too late to stop everything that is in it, but academics, students, MPs and others are certainly not too late to suggest improvements.

12.20pm:

'No cuts, defend public services'

Michael Chessum, who has helped organise today's demonstration on behalf of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, has told me some of his friends will be holding banners with the message above.

Are our public services under attack? The answer is most certainly yes. The coalition has told councils, hospitals and schools that they need to make cuts, but that should be to so-called back office staff, not the frontline. If organisations made themselves more efficient, by sharing services with a neighbouring council for example, they would make the savings they need, ministers imply.

The NHS is meant to have been protected. But the cuts are so deep, hospitals are having to make lose doctors and nurses.

My colleague, Denis Campbell, reported last month that among the hospitals bearing the brunt of the NHS's £20bn efficiency drive is Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals trust in Berkshire. It is considering closing or reducing services at Heatherwood hospital in Ascot to reduce its £10m debt. That could see services such as surgery, orthopaedics, scanning and children's services cut or closed. It has already closed its birth centre owing to financial problems and staff absence. The trust, which has 3,500 staff and a £220m turnover, needed an £18m government loan last year to stay afloat.

Cuts may need to be made, but the sacrifice to cut the fiscal debt is, as Polly Toynbee has written "a permanent human deficit".

11.36am: We've just created a Flickr group to help you show us your pictures of placards and posters here. Click on the link to find out more about how the group works and how to submit photos to the pool - hopefully we'll also be able to feature a selection on the blog.

10.41am: Alex Peters-Day, general secretary of the London School of Economics Student Union, has been in touch with me to say he is going to be holding a banner that says "Condoms protect students, ConDems neglect students".

There's little doubt that condoms do indeed protect students - and everyone else. But have the coalition neglected students?

Last year, as part of the spending review, ministers announced they would be getting rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a weekly payment of between £10 and £30 for 16- to 18-year-olds whose household income was under £30,800. The allowance was ineffective at encouraging the poorest students to stay in education, ministers said. A replacement scheme of bursaries for the poorest students administered by colleges was unveiled in March, but the abolition of the EMA was seen by many as an act of neglect towards poorer students.

Under the new system of higher tuition fees, future students will owe money for longer and at a higher rate of interest than they have done in the past, but whether this can be called "neglect" is up for debate. Many graduates will actually pay a lot less per year and per month under the new system. Martin Lewis' helpful calculations show that if a graduate earns £40,000 under the current system, they pay back £2,250 per year and £187.50 per month out of their pay packet. Under the new system, they'll pay £1,710 per year and £142.50 per month.

The coalition is, in many ways, giving students more power. Universities that are successful in attracting students will be allowed to expand. This will mean universities do everything in their power to give students a good experience thereby improving their reputations. Ministers have promised students more information, such as how many contact hours universities offer.

The previous government was much more generous in its funding of universities, but it also squeezed the number of students so that many of those who wanted to go to university couldn't.

10.27am: At least 10,000 protesters will attend today's demonstration in central London against education cuts, the near-trebling of tuition fees and the government's university reforms.

As with all protests, those taking part will be carrying placards for a variety of causes. I'll be analysing what the banners and posters say. Join in below the line or contact me at jessica.shepherd@guardian.co.uk or on Twitter @jessshepherd1 or feel free to send me your own photos of posters and placards.

'Tax the banks not the students'

Banks already pay tax - it's called corporation tax and is levied on the profits they make. Disappointingly for some, there is no appetite from the three main political parties to raise corporation tax.

Is the implicit meaning in this banner perhaps "tax the bankers' bonuses"? Ed Miliband has called for a tax on bankers' bonuses, but Nick Clegg has urged for the bosses of our banks to instead "show extra sensitivity and transparency" when awarding those bonuses. It doesn't seem as if there is going to be a tax on bankers' bonuses anytime soon.

One of the other inherent messages in this placard is that students are going to be taxed under the new tuition fees system that comes into place in 2012. The government has been careful not to call it a tax, but the demonstrators holding this placard are right: it is in all but name. It is repaid through the income tax system, the amount you repay increases with earnings and you only repay it over a certain amount. However, it does end once you have repaid what you borrowed plus the interest.


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July 22 2011

University sculpture upsets Wyoming coal industry

University accused of ingratitude by one of its main funders for choosing to exhibit 'Carbon Sink' by British artist Chris Drury

The sculpture was always going to be hard to ignore – a giant 36-foot whorl of silvery logs and lumps of black coal in front of the main campus building at the University of Wyoming.

But British artist Chris Drury thought his commentary on the connection between the coal industry and dead trees would merely generate some polite on-campus debate in Cheyenne.

Not anymore. Drury's work, Carbon Sink What Goes Around Comes Around, sits in the heart of coal country, Wyoming, which mines more coal than any other state in America.

The work's existence and the links it draws between coal, climate change, and the pine beetle infestation that is devastating the landscape of the Rocky Mountains, has set off a debate about artistic and academic freedom, with the mining industry and Republican state legislators expressing outrage that a university that got money from coal would dare to turn on it.

"I thought it was a fairly innocuous thing to do," said Drury . "But it's kind of upset a lot of people here. Perhaps it was slightly more obvious because it is slightly more crucial in this state. But this is a university so I expected to start a debate, not a row."

He said he got the idea from a conversation with a scientist who complained that nobody was drawing the connection between the daily coal shipments from Wyoming, and the pine beetle infestation that was killing the region's forests.

The beetles are endemic to the Rockies but with climate change the region no longer gets the plunging temperatures that used to kill them off. Milder winters have allowed the beetles to live on and eat their way through the Rockies, stripping the bark off lodgepole pines from Colorado to British Columbia.

Some of the logs used in the installation were still crawling with beetles.

But as Drury charts on his blog, his comment on the connections between that calamity and coal was too close to home.

By day three of construction, the mining industry was accusing the university of ingratitude towards one of its main benefactors – in what some have seen as a veiled threat to cut funding.

"They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonising the industry," Marion Loomis, the director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Casper Star-Tribune. "I understand academic freedom, and we're very supportive of it, but it's still disappointing."

Then two Republican members of the Wyoming state legislature joined in, calling the work an insult to coal. The subject of university funding also came up.

"While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I'm a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from," Tom Lubnau, one of the state legislators, told the Gillette News-Record.

The university said it was standing by Drury's work, although it was not necessarily endorsing his message.


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June 22 2011

A change of scene

From Gilbert & George to Stella McCartney, Central Saint Martins has trained the country's coolest artists and designers, but can it retain its radical edge now it is moving out of Soho and into King's Cross?

In a studio that reeks of chemicals above London's Charing Cross Road, a small group of second year students are putting on a fashion show with a twist. Danish designer Henrik Vibskov, who is wearing voluminous black trousers and unsuccessfully trying to open the window, has commissioned them to express the concept of a panopticon prison through the medium of menswear.

Two young men stand motionless in front of a screen. One is wearing trousers in violently clashing prints and a hat that looks like it was made of broken white clay pipes; the other has donned a baggy navy jumper with a ochre splodge on it. A short film is projected over them that goes from black-and-white close-ups of a male nude to threatening psychedelic fuzz. They're "clothes for a distorted body", explain the students, pointing to bits that stick out at the elbow and the knee. Christopher New, head of BA fashion menswear, admires the jumper's intricate weave and asks about the meaning of the yellow blob. "Sometimes we do classic tailoring as well," he tells me, moving on to the next group of students, whose interpretation of the panopticon concept involves the recreation of a rave in the college's basement.

This is Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM), which for decades has been the place where Britain's brightest young creatives have come to develop their talents (it evolved into its present incarnation in 1989, when the Central School of Art and Design merged with Saint Martins School of Art). It was at Saint Martins that Gilbert met George in 1967, the Sex Pistols played their first ever show in 1975 and Jarvis Cocker met the Greek girl who "had a thirst for knowledge" and inspired Pulp's Common People. In the mid-80s, the Charing Cross Road building became renowned as the furnace in which the world's leading fashion designers were forged, a reputation that persists to this day. Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci, 2011's most talked-about designers, both studied here, as did Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, the men they replaced (or are poised to, in Tisci's case) at McQueen and Dior. A list of other CSM alumni would take up the rest of this article, but includes such cutting-edge artistic talents as Polly Harvey, MIA, Sade, Mike Leigh, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Jonathan Saunders and three-quarters of the Clash.

This week marks the end of an era, as CSM leaves its two buildings in central London and moves to a new premises in King's Cross, just across the road from the Guardian. The move won't be welcomed by Professor Louise Wilson, legendary course director of MA fashion, who believes that the very grottiness of the Charing Cross Road building has helped drive her students – from McQueen to Christopher Kane – to succeed. "You feel that you're better than this corridor," she says. "In the new building you want to hide. All our secretaries loved it when they saw it and I thought: 'Yeah, you would.' I didn't want to point out that they're never going to meet a man because there's nothing around there. But it's not an issue whether or not we like it – we're going."

A party for alumni at the Charing Cross Road building will celebrate the occasion, where Pulp will play. The bash has been organised by former student Katie Grand, now editor of Love magazine and one of the most sought-after stylists in the world. "They should tell you on your first day that everyone you meet you're probably going to be working with in 20 years' time," she says. Her early-90s peer group included Luella Bartley, Giles Deacon, Stella McCartney, Antonio Berardi, Hussein Chalayan and Phoebe Philo – as well as Anita Pallenberg, who enrolled as a mature student. "I remember my first day at college," says Grand. "It was like that scene from Fame with everyone jumping around and being terribly intimidating and fabulous."

Right from the start, eccentricity seems to have been woven into the place's DNA. Antony Gormley, who studied sculpture for a year from 1974 before deciding that the place wasn't for him, remembers one tutor, Patrick Reyntiens, who wore medieval costume. "He didn't believe in modern trousers with pockets so he had to have a little purse that he hung from his very wide leather belt. He was literally in hose, so he was wearing tights, and then this sort of doublet at the top." Grand remembers one student being warmly praised for making a print out mice blood, while Christopher Booth, now menswear designer at Balenciaga, got stuck straight into making jackets designed for Siamese twins: "I was like, 'Yeah! Creativity!' and the tutors appreciated that." Walking around the collections made by this year's final year, you see that anarchic sprit lives on in the work of Ryohei Kawanishi, who has created giant-sized items of knitwear representing WikiLeaks and Twitter.

Some students have had mixed feelings about this tendency to elevate the conceptual over the practical: Philo, now the celebrated designer of French fashion house Céline, famously said of her time at CSM that: "I just wanted to make a pair of trousers that made my arse look good, rather than a pair that represented the Holocaust or something." It's also characteristic of the place that when you ask the head of the college, Professor Jane Rapley, which former students stick in her mind, she settles on Chalayan, famous for burying his collections in the ground and making dresses that turn into tables.

Yet this unashamedly arty thinking is what gives CSM its edge. Moreover, it gets tangible, often commercial results. Though they only showed their work in February, three of this year's MA graduates have now been snapped up by red-hot Parisian fashion house Lanvin; over on the BA course, Italian Vogue is already sniffing round 25-year-old Flaminia Saccucci, whose collection of sharply cut latex dresses printed with flowers and tyre marks have won her this year's L'Oréal Professionnel Young Design Talent award. It's not just fashion designers either: Glen Matlock, who dropped out of a foundation course to join the Sex Pistols ("I've always regretted it. Vivienne Westwood said I was mad"), claims Pretty Vacant was inspired by his time there: "Marcel Duchamp and his readymades – that's how I got the idea. I borrowed the riff from an Abba song, and I thought it was cool because that's what Marcel Duchamp did. Pretty Vacant, with that moronic riff, is somehow Dadaist. I wouldn't have got there if I hadn't been to art school."

Yet will the creative buzz survive CSM's move from the bright lights of Soho to the building site that is King's Cross? Even more than the college's reputation, the central location has been the main draw for generations of students. In the 70s, Matlock remembers seeing Lucian Freud in the district's illicit drinking clubs. Mark Titchner, who studied fine art from 1992, divided his time between the record shops and the galleries: "To be able to go to the National Gallery and look at a work and not much else was very luxurious." Booth points out that Soho contains invaluable resources for fashion students – the fabric shops on Berwick Street to make the clothes, and the sex shops for "research". The college is intimately linked to London's clubland – designer Gareth Pugh remembers putting on a fashion show at a strip club called Moonlighting in Greek Street and discovering that a corridor led to the college's library. Grand says that hanging out with the staff of Covent Garden shop The Duffer of St George in her lunch hour taught her as much as some of Saint Martins's more avant-garde projects.

It was in the mid-80s that Soho became youth culture ground zero, making Saint Martins the hottest place on earth. Artist Isaac Julien, who studied fine art and film and graduated in 1984, remembers an dizzyingly fertile time when young creatives broke down the boundaries between artistic disciplines, high art and club culture, couture and street fashion. Fashion students such as Galliano would work on their creations all day, then go out in them at night to Club For Heroes and Le Beat Route, where they would be photographed for emerging style magazines such as the Face and i-D. There were talented young people on every course: graphic design student Robin Derrick, now the outgoing creative director of Vogue, was in charge of the college magazine; Peter Doig was studying fine art, and students such as Julien were rebelling against their tutors' idea of film studies to embrace MTV and popular culture. Julien remembers his peers as a generation who knew they were going places and felt ready to seize any opportunity that came their way. "It was incredibly difficult to get on a course," he chuckles. "So you felt that it was an achievement just being there and that you were expected to culturally lead in some fashion. If you were in the centre of London, you were at the centre of things. Who'd want to be at Goldsmiths?" – positively out in the sticks in New Cross.

These days, however, London's cutting-edge club scene has long shifted east, and today's students don't seem fazed by the move out of Soho. "It's nice to go to a big new building because it's so annoying that our libraries are separate," says 20-year-old first year menswear student Ellie McDonald. "It's fashion and fine art here and then everything else at Southampton Row" – CSM's other central London building, 10 minutes' walk away in Holborn. Soho isn't what it was, either: the Crossrail project has flattened the West End's best club and gig venues, and King's Cross at least offers a building which, as Rapley puts it: "hopefully won't leak, the windows won't fall out, lumps won't fall down and nearly kill people and we might be warm". The move is part of a long-term strategic plan to bring together the Univerity of the Arts London – CSM's parent organisation – on to a single site; by the time next term starts, it will hold 3,000 students and 800 staff (two other buildings whose leases haven't run out will still be in use, at Clerkenwell and Archway).

Of course, next year will also bring increased tuition fees: CSM will charge £9,000, replacing the £8,500 a student currently funded by the government. Rapley says that CSM is "quite obsessed" with the worry that brilliant working-class students such as Lee McQueen – whose father was a cabbie – will no longer be able to afford to come, though they're at pains to point out that CSM will be no more expensive than any comparable institution. What art schools traditionally provided, Rapley says, "was an opportunity for the renegade to come through. Our most obvious classic one is McQueen, although I have to say we just helped along the way – he was going to get there one way or another." Initiatives to improve access include bursaries for students who can't afford the fees, and outreach programmes which bring students from poor backgrounds into the college in order to encourage them to apply.

While both Rapley and Wilson say that CSM isn't for everybody ("We might destroy you," says Rapley, faintly alarmingly), when I ask what advice Wilson would give a student who wants to go, she simply says "apply. I'm always frightened that it's those people that don't apply are the very ones we want to apply. It's perception as well – we're considered a very good college, and it can be something as innocent as the art teacher saying 'you won't get in there' that puts them off. Actually, they might."

Yet the college is all too aware that students have never been so hard-pressed financially. Wilson says that it's not unusual for people on her MA course to have already racked up £50,000-worth of debt during a foundation course and three-year BA, which in turn affects their work: "The pressure disallows them to take as many risks as they would have previously." A self-described "rightwing despot", she points out that the barriers to entry for working-class students were erected under Labour, when grants were abolished. "Education has had seismic cuts for years, and soon it's going to be on its knees," she rages. "The grants disappeared without so much as a murmur – that's already affected education because people from other social strata can't enter it, for that dynamic mix."

Yet despite everything, CSM is determined to preserve the spirit that has made it such a powerhouse of creativity. "I think the place stands for a certain anarchic idea of permanent revolution – of every generation overturning the orthodoxies of the previous one," says Gormley. "It's so important for the national culture that there right in the heart of the city there are people poking fun, asking: 'Is this the way we want to look? Is this the way we want to make things? What's important about being alive?'"

CSM's philosophy, says Wilson, is revealed in the fact that it doesn't even have an archive. "That means you're hanging on to the past, and we're always trying to creating the new and not redo it. Fashion's transient – it moves. And besides, the students aren't interested – they do their research, but they certainly don't look back at old shows that we've done. We're very hot on having knowledge and then rejecting it."

Downstairs by the library, two students are making another project, which involves photographing each other with cardboard boxes over their heads. As I pass by, they rope me in, put a box on my head, and snap me waving goodbye, Wilson's parting shot ringing in my ears: "Without art you don't have society. It underpins so much. Without creatives we're a bit buggered."


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June 21 2011

Education letters

From Hackney Downs to AC Grayling

Michael Barber's CV

It was nice to learn that Michael Barber is making world-class money working for Pearson (Mad professor goes global, 14 June). But it's sad that he is still quoted as defending the closure of Hackney Downs school in 1995 as some kind of triumph. The hurried closure of the school in December 1995 had a disastrous effect on the education of many of the boys, especially those in their final GCSE year. The history of the closure is one of educational neglect, political machinations and deionisation of the school, teachers, students and their families. Perhaps Barber was right to boast that the stand taken became the foundation of New Labour's education policy. It could stand as a metaphor for the increase in inequalities in the education system and the continuing punitive measures aimed at schools in poorer areas.

Professor Sally Tomlinson

University of Oxford

• Peter Wilby misses one of Michael Barber's greatest successes. Barber was also a member of Lord Browne's review of higher education funding. He was not the only horse out of the McKinsey stable involved in the review. There was also Peter Sands, the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, who spent 13 years at McKinsey. Indeed, there are many of us who believe that Browne's report would have been much more honestly entitled "the McKinsey report", but this would have drawn attention to the privatisation agenda underlying its recommendations.

Professor John Newsinger

Bath Spa University

No loss of jobs

Yup, James Dyson is the obvious choice to spearhead the revival of British manufacturing by repurposing design technology education ('It's not about banging nails into wood', 14 June). You conjure up problems: disappointment that the wheel on your wheelbarrow is not a bright orange plastic football; the frustration of not being able to watch the muck you've hoovered up whizzing round inside the machine. And then, having built a business out of that, you dump a big chunk of your workforce and send their jobs overseas. To me "British manufacturing" means people employed in the UK, paying UK taxes to finance, among other things, design technology education.

Root Cartwright

Radlett, Hertfordshire

Student complaints

Sue Littlemore asked whether vice-chancellors are becoming heads of customer sevices, following a rise in student complaints.

When you pay, you've got rights to complain. When you pay a lot, you've got rights to complain a lot.

jekylnhyde via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• Student anger should be directed at the government, which has cut university funding and is making students pick up the bill. The universities will have no more money, while being expected to deliver enhanced services.

coffeetable via EducationGuardian.co.uk

A set-up?

Harriet Swain wrote a step-by-step guide to starting your own university in the manner of AC Grayling.

I find it difficult to see what the fuss is all about. AC Grayling is only doing this to highlight the cuts that humanities departments have suffered.

beth23 via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• A perfect skewering. (I'm still chuckling as I'm typing.)

2baz via EducationGuardian.co.uk

• Journalism of the lowest order.

Lionel via EducationGuardian.co.uk


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June 20 2011

Art clubs target talented children

Saturday art clubs – a reincarnation of a 1970s idea – are inspiring disadvantaged children

See their work in this gallery

The young boy looks wistfully out of the window at the huge green expanse beyond, the darkness of his clothing – layered with tiny strokes of coloured pencil – contrasting with the airiness of the never-ending countryside.

This extraordinary drawing – which goes on show this week in a new exhibition at London's Somerset House – is not the work of a professional artist, but 14-year-old Leeds schoolboy Hafizullah Karim.

The exhibition spotlights the potential of more than 400 young people aged 14-16, showcasing their work in disciplines from drawing, painting and sculpture to photography, print-making, ceramics and digital graphics. All have taken part this year in the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme, receiving free specialist tuition from their local art college.

The Saturday club is a modern version of an earlier incarnation, which bit the dust in the 1970s. The aim was – and is – to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to consider careers in the creative arts. So on Saturday mornings 14 art colleges – including Leeds, Plymouth, Hereford, Grimsby and Hastings – have been throwing their doors open to this group of young people who often struggling lengthy distances by public transport to get to the lessons.

Hafizullah seems surprised by the huge interest in his work since he won a place last year on the club run by Leeds College of Art. "I love art," he says. "It is my favourite subject at school, but I have learned so much from the Saturday Club. My tutors have encouraged me to be more adventurous in my style. In art, the more you do, the better you are. I have worked with clay, done graphics and also used watercolours." He explains that for this work, he originally took a photograph of himself sitting by the window at home but adapted it for the drawing – which he completed in about a week and a half – substituting the urban views outside for countryside. "The outside world and nature are so important to us all," he says, declaring himself an admirer of the Impressionists.

His love of the outdoor space may reflect the earlier restrictions in his life. Hafizullah's family left Afghanistan when he was three to live in Pakistan while his father went to find work in Leeds. The youngster honed his drawing skills at the afterschool Ghoighola Art Class in Quetta, which he attended for four years.

In February last year, he and the rest of his family moved to the area and he joined year 9 at City of Leeds high school. He won a place at the Saturday Club after the school's head of art, Catherine Walsh, recommended him as exceptionally gifted.

This year, more than 400 young people attending 100 schools in the UK have taken part in Saturday Club – funded predominantly by the private Sorrell Foundation to the tune of £150,000 a year – but it is hoped to increase this number to 500 next year. It is estimated that there are a further 100 UK colleges that could offer the programme using existing facilities, and the aim is to "scale it up" each year to allow more young people to take part.

The scheme targets 14- to 16-year-olds who have already shown evidence of artistic talent – many from challenging social backgrounds – who are still weighing up their academic options after GCSE and are yet to decide whether to pursue further or higher education. While the regular classes offer the kind of tuition and facilities that most secondary schools could only dream of, they are supplemented by "Master classes" given by renowned artists and designers such as Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick and Naomi Cleaver. This brings the best of inspirational British art and design talent to youngsters from poorer backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to tap into such creativity, along with opportunities for longer-term mentoring. All students are also taken to London for a day – for many their first visit – for tours of major galleries.

Also studying at the Leeds club is Nida Mozuraite, a 16-year-old student at Morley Academy, who came to the UK with her family from Lithuania six years ago. She has been getting up regularly on Saturday mornings at 8am to travel to Leeds for the three-hour sessions. "I have got used to getting up early and I do it because I enjoy it," she says. "I have made lots of new friends and also been introduced to techniques I would not have been able to use at school. The tutors treat you like grownups, not children." Nida is just finishing her GCSEs and plans to study full-time at the college on its BTec national (extended) diploma in art and design in September.

The clubs' success is reflected in high attendance rates – no mean feat given that Saturday mornings are a time when you would expect most teenagers to be chilling out or hanging around with their mates – if they manage to drag themselves out of bed at all. Last year, Leeds College of Art received 80 applications for just 25 places, while at Plymouth College of Art some students happily undertake a 60-mile round trip to attend classes.

The clubs use existing resources, but the art college lecturers (helped by student volunteers) have to give up their valuable time on a Saturday to teach – a considerable sacrifice at the end of a busy week.

The drive to expand the programme into a fully national one is given extra impetus given the cuts to arts education funding that threaten to constrict the supply of talent to colleges, universities and, ultimately, the creative sector in the UK. Similarly, many teachers fear that art GCSE is at risk if schools have to comply with the new EBacc curriculum – which for the same reasons could also lead to design technology being downgraded.

Plymouth College of Art's club has been running for five years, and last year 38% of club members went on to take up courses at the college. An enthusiastic "veteran" is 15-year-old Ben Lintell, whose striking photographic work for a magazine project features in the exhibition. "I have done everything from old-style poster printing to pinhole photography, which has been great," he says. "The sky's the limit in terms of what you are taught, and I have also enjoyed the chance to work collaboratively."

Fellow member 14-year-old Eleanor James-George says: "I would very much like to go on to study at Plymouth College of Art. I have really enjoyed screen-printing T-shirts with photographs, and using  darkroom equipment, enlargers etc that we do not have at school."

Alumni of the original 1970s art clubs included designers John and Frances Sorrell (who went on to form design consultancy Newell and Sorrell and who set up the Sorrell Foundation) and advertising genius John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Sir John Sorrell reflects: "This strikes me as something the government should support as it is all about localism in action. Frances and I were lucky that we could start our careers in a Saturday morning art and design class when we were 14 years old, and by the age of 19 I was running my own business. We believe the club offers a real pathway for youngsters to develop their skills and confidence, and find worthwhile and rewarding careers. Just as we did."

• The exhibition is open until 17 July, admission free.


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Arts on Saturday

Disadvantaged children are being nurtured in the creative arts by the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme. An exhibition opens this week at Somerset House in London of the work of more than 400 young people



May 24 2011

Ulli Beier obituary

Academic, editor and energetic promoter of African culture

The first Conference of Black Artists and Writers in Paris in 1956 proved an epiphany for Ulli Beier, who has died aged 88, igniting his desire to promote the world of black culture. He returned to his university post in Ibadan, Nigeria's third city, and with another German-born scholar, Janheinz Jahn, started the magazine Black Orpheus, based on Jean-Paul Sartre's 1948 manifesto of that name. It became a significant force in the golden cultural decade that followed in Ibadan, and Ulli moved from the study of phonetics to the more adventurous extramural department.

Ulli became one of a team of free-operating teachers who moved out into the countryside. Lalage Bown, who worked there in the early 1960s, says the department was "giving people a chance to develop their own cultural identity".

Ulli and his Austrian-born wife Susanne Wenger went to live first in Ede, and then, in 1960, Oshogbo, about 50 miles north-east of Ibadan. It was a typical Yoruba town attractive to both of them. The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote: "An assignment roulette in Europe brought them to Nigeria and both promptly 'went native', Susanne not just culturally, but viscerally and spiritually, holding nothing back in herself, and was inducted into the priesthood of the goddess of the Osun river."

Ibadan's burgeoning cultural life gave Ulli full rein to develop his skills as a cultural entrepreneur – his real genius – although he was also a prolific writer and over the course of 50 years produced a plethora of material on African art and literature, including The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (1963). He was one of the initiators of the Oshogbo school of artists, although Susanne played a key role, and he encouraged a number of artists such as Muraina Oyelami and Twins Seven-Seven. He was also instrumental in bringing to wider attention the Oshogbo theatre troupe of Duro Ladipo, whose work Oba Koso was performed at the Commonwealth arts festival in London in 1965.

The aluminium panel-beater Ashiru, whose works have become treasured collectors' pieces, was discovered by Susanne who, walking one day in the dusty streets of Oshogbo, said a former colleague, "in her high heels, accidentally kicked a little copper lion in the dust, and immediately insisted on finding the creator, who turned out to be a local blacksmith." But if Susanne identified, Ulli promoted.

What struck me when interviewing Ulli was his single-mindedness and his imaginative energy, seen in the way he helped found the Mbari club in Ibadan. Mbari is Igbo for "open space", in this case a venue where new writers and artists could meet and perform their work. Many celebrated names helped launch their careers there. Ulli was not its only founder (as is sometimes claimed), but his entrepreneurial skills helped make it tick. A similar club, Mbari Mbayo – a Yoruba expression for happiness – was formed in Oshogbo.

It may be that Ulli, restlessly questing for the authentic, felt that Oshogbo, now an undoubted success, no longer needed him. He developed a new fascination with the artist who went under the pseudonym of "Middle Art", one of the highly original Igbo sign-painters across the Niger, whose work he collected, representing a deeper authenticity than the Oshogbo school. He also looked to the creativity of the Nsukka school of mainly Igbo artists, based at Nsukka University, to the east.

Thus the arrival of the civil war in 1966-67 was a shattering blow, and although he left before the war, the 1966 massacres and the retreat of the Igbo to their heartland was traumatic for him. He had by now divorced Susanne and married Georgina, an artist who had been in Nigeria since 1959, first of all at the art school in Zaria, to the north, but gravitating in 1963 to join Ulli in Oshogbo, which she described as the beginning of their lifelong partnership.

In 1967 they went together to Papua New Guinea, where there was new territory to conquer. They stayed for four years and began to sow seeds of artistic development in a country whose native genius was more culturally unformed than Nigeria. The jury is still out on how much influence they were able to wield, but there was no doubt that in PNG their contribution to cultural life was greatly appreciated.

But it was never quite Nigeria, and from 1971 to 1974 they went back to the University of Ife, working with Soyinka. Ulli's creative universality and complexity – yearning for both diversity and fusion – caused the critic Keith Botsford to comment: "I've known no other man like him. No single country really deserves him; there is no traditional culture that does not need him."

A native of Glowitz in Mecklenburg, in the old Prussian heartland of Germany, Beier was the son of a doctor with a fine appreciation of the arts. The family were non-practising Jews, and in the mid-1930s they moved to British-ruled Palestine to escape Nazi rule. Although they were interned for a period during the second world war, young Ulli satisfied his thirst for education by pursuing an external degree at London University. After the war he moved to London for a second degree, in phonetics.

Visiting Paris in 1949 he met, was captivated by and married the eccentric Susanne. He had already obtained a teaching position at the newly formed University of Ibadan, where the two of them went in October 1950.

His book In a Colonial University (1993) recounts how he went to Nigeria simply foreseeing "an interesting adventure", as a refugee who had "experienced three different cultures" but had no congenial home. "I did not know who I was, what I wanted from life," but after two years in Nigeria he had begun to find an identity. Reacting negatively to the "colonial posing" he found at the university, he becoming more and more involved in the Yoruba environment around him.

In 1974, Ulli and Georgina returned to the Pacific, living mainly in Australia, although from 1989 to 1997 Ulli was invited by the University of Bayreuth to set up a cultural centre devoted to African art and its global fusion, called Iwalewa Haus (iwalewa being Yoruba for "character is beauty"). The idea of having an African shop-window in the town that is a shrine to Richard Wagner may well have appealed to Ulli's sense of cultural juxtaposition.

Despite his many passionate admirers, he was not without critics in Nigeria, which may have accounted for the refusal of authorities in 2000 to permit him to return to spend his declining years there. This generated a furious debate in Nigerian newspapers, and some of the issues came up at the 80th birthday colloquium held at Iwalewa Haus in 2002, Ulli Beier – a Passion for Difference, a title that epitomised his extraordinary career.

He is survived by Georgina and their sons, Sebastian and Tunji.

• Horst Ulrich Beier, writer and cultural entrepreneur, born 31 May 1922; died 3 April 2011


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May 23 2011

Beauty Is in the Street: the power of protest posters

A new book reminds us of powerful, unifying posters designed by students during the May 1968 Paris uprising. But where are the design campaigns from the youth of today?

Three years ago the media marked the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 Paris uprising with a wave of nostalgic reminiscence. There may have been a nice round number to celebrate, but that was about all there was connecting us to the spirit of '68. Three years later, following a banking-triggered recession and the election of a right-wing government, that spirit seems to have been exhumed. We've seen students occupy universities across the UK, and hundreds of thousands march against government spending cuts. In many ways this is a more propitious moment to release a beautiful volume of the posters created by the Atelier Populaire, and Four Corners Books has done just that.

While their fellow students engaged in pitched battles with the police and millions of workers went on general strike, students at the École des Beaux Arts in 1968 occupied the printing studios and converted them into the uprising's very own propaganda machine. Many of the resulting posters have become icons of political design. The riot policeman bearing down on the viewer with his truncheon aloft, his head helmeted and goggled in a ghoulish mask, has become synonymous with oppression.

By contrast, the long-haired student hurling a cobblestone, which appears to be floating harmlessly in the air, aestheticises resistance as a liberating act. The poster's slogan translates as "Beauty Is in the Street". The book takes that as its title, with these two images as its front and back covers.

The Atelier Populaire may have been a group of art students but – high on the fumes of Marxism – they decried the privileged, bourgeois art world. Out in the real world, they had a job to do. They set up a silk-screen printing press (much faster than the lithography presses in the studios they'd occupied) and worked around the clock in shifts. That way, they could produce thousands of posters at a time, to be slapped up around the city. They were not art, but tools, weapons even. In the frontispiece to a 1969 book of the posters reproduced here, the Atelier Populaire wrote: "To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect." Well, it's too late for that – they are nothing now if not objects of aesthetic interest.

The posters display different styles but the individual designers were never credited (too bourgeois) – they were the work of the collective. What they had in common was an economy of expression: single colours printed on newssheet gifted by the striking newspapers, bold forms and provocative slogans. What stands out today is an extremely concise iconography.

The factory, with its saw-toothed roof and chimney, symbolises the worker's productive role in society, and the spanner his honest labour. The fist is the students' symbol of solidarity and resistance. The real success of May '68 – and arguably its only achievement – was the alliance of these unlikely groups. And so in one poster the chimney becomes the fist. In another, the worker and student stand arm in arm. Often the figures are silhouettes, not just because they are more graphic but also to condense the many into one unified body. Perhaps the strongest poster of all is a six-headed silhouette that reads "We are the power".

The iconography for the forces of oppression, conservatism and capitalism are equally straightforward. There are chains and truncheons and rats and, of course, the long-nosed profile of President De Gaulle. What were the students opposing? What started with a complaint about the old-fashioned regulations at Nanterre University became a battle cry against establishment values and consumer culture – or what the Situationists called "the spectacle". Georges Perec had parodied that culture in his 1965 novel Things, and one example of graffiti here (to its credit the book includes many photographs of the graffiti as well as the posters of this time) reads "L'homme fait l'amour avec la Chose": "Man makes love to the Thing."

Today, the Marxist fervour may have died down but flare-ups against capitalist forces persist. The question is, where is the political design? There was the odd hand-drawn poster at the UCL occupation in December but no organised design campaign to compare with '68. Perhaps graphics were a device that the students didn't need. With Twitter and Facebook and mobile phones to hand, the poster is a less exponential way of mobilising support. Which also suggests that protest today relies more on the telegraphic soundbite than the graphic image – an ironic conclusion given that ours is an age in thrall to pictures.

There remains a counter-cultural graphics, but when it is political it is rarely ideologically so. Banksy's street art adopts a vaguely anti-establishment stance but it is individualistic rather than collective. Similarly, Shepard Fairey's famous "Obey" posters warn against the power of advertising, and yet his explicitly political works give the impression that they are merely endorsements of personality politics. The "Hope" election poster for Obama and his images of other figures such as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi pursue the Che T-shirt model of iconisation. And this leaves aside the fact that both Banksy and Fairey are commercial artists, whereas the Atelier Populaire refused to allow its posters to be sold and thus commodified.

The UK's political graphics tend to be more stealthy and insidious. Take that odd phenomenon, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster that has been ubiquitous since the credit crunch. In its appeal to the plucky stoicism of the blitz years, it seems designed to dampen down any unrest aimed at the political-financial establishment. Or think back to the Conservative election campaign. Remember those posters featuring David Cameron's heavily Photoshopped face with the slogan "We can't go on like this"? The dewy ruddiness of Cameron's cheeks, the vagueness of that "this", such is the true nature of political image-making in our time: no bold graphics or progressive rhetoric, just the subtle massaging of the truth into a digestible advert.


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March 07 2011

Why shades keep you cool

Sunglasses have their uses, but research shows they are becoming much more important in western culture as a cool accessory suggesting power, prestige and mystique

There can't be many connections between Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol, the cows on yoghurt adverts and Father Christmas. But here's one: they've all been spotted wearing sunglasses and analysed by Vanessa Brown, senior lecturer in design and visual culture at Nottingham Trent University, as part of her theory into the "coolness" of shades and why we wear them. It's not, she can report, just to keep the sun out of our eyes.

A trip to the supermarket was the inspiration for Brown's research. "On the way home after decorating my new flat, I stopped at a supermarket to buy a pint of milk," she says. "I was wearing old painting clothes and was generally a bit of a state, so as I left the car I grabbed my sunglasses from the dashboard. But when I approached the store I caught sight of myself reflected in the glass façade, and realised I looked quite cool.

"Whether I did or not is obviously debatable, but it struck me how odd it was that the mere addition of one accessory could transform my perception of myself."

Brown has always been interested in the meanings of objects and their cultural values – she has previously studied Tupperware and the idea of the housewife – so "sunglasses seemed like an ideal next project", she says.

With the help of the British Optical Association and the curator of its museum, Brown began searching through thousands of images, adverts, films, fashion photographs, documentary photographs and optical industry journals to investigate the symbolism of shades. "I found that sunglasses were always strongly associated with the glamour and power of modern technology, control of emotion, control of the body and control of interactions with others," says Brown.

She then started to analyse the link between the wearing of sunglasses and the broader phenomenon of "what it is to be cool". Brown, who is 40, explains: "Sunglasses are appealing because they connote coolness, which is used to sell almost everything." That was obvious from the sunglass-wearing cows in the yoghurt ad. "Some other researchers say coolness is emerging as the highest value in western society," she adds. "This can be seen as a very worrying and profoundly antisocial shift, as cool characters display lack of concern for others, lack of respect for authority or social convention, and a focus on style above all else."

However, Brown's research suggests that cool, sunglass-wearing heroes and villains are not so worrying. The shades represent their composure, their "self-possession in the face of seemingly overwhelming forces", she explains. "This resonates with experiences many of us share – we're increasingly alienated from work, each other and the natural world, increasingly aware of financial, medical, environmental risk and increasingly faced with identity choices. By shading the eyes, we can appear detached from the chaos, either frankly unbothered by, or utterly on top of, the frantic pace of technology and fashion.

"Sunglasses, by covering those vulnerable eyes and implying that connection with sleek engineering and glossy surfaces, make it easier to pull off a truly cool demeanour." Brown says her research has highlighted the proliferation of sunglasses in DVD covers, music videos, fashion images and adverts. "There are thousands of examples of sunglasses being used in visual culture as a key prop," she says.

"Increasingly, images of shaded eyes are used to sell products by suggesting power and prestige. They are perfect visual copy, suggesting mystique and self-possession as well as the glamour of being immersed in light."

Lady Gaga, says Brown, uses sunglasses to suggest her chameleon, avant-garde identity. She also points out that people buy sunglasses for their avatars to wear in the online game Second Life – where there is no sun. "They experience their idealised, more glamorous identity in Second Life from behind another glass barrier which hides the 'real' them – their computer screen," Brown explains. "My research demonstrates how many challenging aspects of modern life are negotiable through the shading of the eye."

Back in the real world, other sunglass-wearers that came under Brown's scrutiny include the jazz musician Miles Davis, "who decided to wear shades to avoid eye contact with racists and squares", and Andy Warhol who, Brown says, used sunglasses "as a means of glamorous detachment".

As for the fashionista, often shrouded in big sunglasses à la Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Brown says this represents disdain for others and being "unmoved" by the latest shocking model to strut down the catwalk. "Sunglasses also reflect light – which itself has been a metaphor for modernity, as in 'enlightenment'," she adds. "But that reflecting light also represents the success of modern celebrity and glamour – either flashbulbs, studio lights or the sun of exotic holidays."

Brown dismisses criticism that the value of her research on sunglasses could be questioned. "The study of fashion and popular culture is always open to question because it appears to address the less serious issues of life," she says. "But my dedication to studying popular cultural images and objects comes from a conviction that the things that people do 'without thinking' are the most telling about their fears, desires, motivations and concerns."


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November 11 2010

The thrilling truth about protest photo

That so many papers chose the same picture is a sign of our appetite for a rumble – the underside of our usual self-image

A hooded figure balances on one leg to kick at the last fractured pieces of an already holed and partially collapsed window, while gold and red flames glow behind this shady anti-hero of insurrection. This photograph from Wednesday's student protest is the image that has been chosen by many papers to illustrate what was intended, and was experienced by most students, as a peaceful march. Is it political manipulation to choose this picture instead of, say, a peaceful shot of smiling placard-wavers to put on front pages? Are the media exercising their nasty arts to make students look like a mob?

No. This image has made the front pages because it is exciting. Its violence is liberating to contemplate, in a dangerous, Dionysian way. The ancient Greeks mythologised the irrational, savage, destructive side of the human psyche in stories of the wine god Dionysus and his crazed followers. Down the centuries, pictures of social protest have summoned up those same wine-dark powers or recognised them in moments when the quiet of the city is turned inside out and all the suppressed antagonisms of daily life explode in riot.

The most famous painting of revolution, Eugène Delacroix's early 19th century masterpiece Liberty Leading the People, in the Louvre, is not the work of a political man but of a romantic: Delacroix was intoxicated by the sudden freedoms of the 1830 revolution in Paris in the same way he was intoxicated by fantasies of wild sex and decadence in his paintings of imagined Oriental harems.

Revolution is exhilarating to behold – whatever side you are on. This image will be interpreted differently by different people. Supporters of the government may find it chilling, official student leaders will be frustrated, some will feel a sombre conviction that this may just be the beginning of resistance to controversial policies. But in truth, all sides – from the suburban Tory shuddering at the image on the Telegraph front page to the student activist inspired to plan the next sit-in – will be a bit aroused. There is a satisfaction in the release of the repressed. Months of national debate that have veered from blandly soothing talk that "we are all in this together" to the muted despair of those who fear job losses, here explode into an image that after all tells the truth. Whatever the statistics – the small minority who fought the police, the many marchers whose right to peaceful protest was hijacked – this picture makes a simple fact instantly visible: we are not all in this together and the government is bringing in some deeply divisive measures.

In saying this I do not mean to score a political point. The mystery is why a picture like this appeals across the spectrum and has a thudding emotional, visceral power even if you are revulsed by the actions it portrays. In British cultural history, the Dionysian appetite for a rumble seems to be deeply engraved, as the shadow, the mirror, of our usual placid self-image. The very tranquillity of the way we so often portray ourselves – the village green, the pleasant parkland, the suburban gardens and homely homes – calls for a daemonic underside of national identity.

Unlike France, which has a long art history (and history) of revolution, we have a profound national iconography of riot. This can be traced back to 18th century prints of the Gordon Riots, but in modern times has become part of pop music and art. Punk was an aesthetic of riot, translated into high art by Gilbert and George. It was deeply British. Somehow, the saloon bar conservatives in country pubs needed the spectre of God Save the Queen as much as John Lydon needed them to be appalled. And here we are again: punk's not dead. This is not a scary picture, a propaganda image or cheap sensationalism but a thrilling, truthful picture that brings everyone's terrors and disturbing desires out into the open, onto the usually so peaceful streets.


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August 31 2010

Creative campuses

Learning Landscapes, a research project into the relationship between students, lecturers and researchers and the buildings they use, aims to bring a new creativity to campus design

Student hostels aren't hotels", says Professor Mike Neary, "nor are university campuses business parks." That, though, is what they have been in danger of turning into over the last decade, says Neary, political sociologist, dean of teaching and learning, and director of the centre for educational research and development at the University of Lincoln. "A decade," he says, "in which neo-liberal economics and the business model for education and politics, as well as business itself, appeared to have triumphed. Yet, it's all over now. Finished."

You can tell that Neary is more than pleased that attitudes to education in Britain are changing now that politicians and educators have finally realised that the brutal, roller-coaster ways of global capitalism are no friends to learning. And yet, over the last decade, many universities have invested in eye-catching architecture aimed, he says, at attracting investors and business, as a way of transforming places that should be free-thinking and outside the immediate commercial equation into marketing-driven "brands". Students have become "customers" in business-style machines for teaching; these are expected to serve the economy by slotting graduates neatly into profitable jobs.

To counteract this tendency and help re-think what universities are, what they are for and how they might build, occupy and use space intelligently – even critically, Neary has spent much of the last three years leading the research for a project called Learning Landscapes in Higher Education. This was set up at Lincoln with Professor David Chiddick, former vice-chancellor of the university, in the chair. Chiddick is the town planner, urban and transport economist who led the University of Lincoln from its old home in Hull to the cathedral city in the 1990s. He has been responsible for some fine-looking buildings on the new Lincoln campus, not least the elegant new school of architecture designed by Rick Mather in the long Gothic shadow of the medieval cathedral.

The Learning Landscapes project probed the ways those who commission university buildings, those who run them, as well as those who teach, learn and research in them actually relate to built space. What role, if any, do students and academics play in the design and use of lecture theatres and other conventional teaching spaces? To what extent are new buildings simply supplied, something that staff and students blindly accept? Is there a growing gap between the concerns of academia, architecture and estate management?

Working with the architects and space-planners DEGW, Neary and his colleagues visited 12 universities in Scotland, England and Wales, conducting extensive interviews in each. The team asked their hosts, including student representatives, what buildings on their campus they would like to "keep, toss or create". What sort of buildings and spaces did they think might live up to Neary's "three Es" – "efficiency, effectiveness and expression"?

As John Worthington of DEGW puts it, the practical aim of this research has been "to dissolve the division between estate departments and teaching and learning that so often results in silos of responsibility and a lack of understanding of each others' work and needs."

Neary, though, believes that the research – published in the spring – is only a stepping-stone on the way to campuses that function as well as they should. "It's been an academic exercise," he says, "and this is just what it needs to have been. Universities are academic. What we need to do is to think of the ways in which the process of research, of critical, academic thinking by students and teachers alike can shape the physical environment around them. A university's architecture and the spaces within it, though, might adopt many different forms and models."

Before I get the chance to ask how such buildings and spaces might possibly look, and how they might be used, Neary points me to Virginia Woolf's advice on how to build a university in Three Guineas, a book-length essay published in 1938. Seeing, during the heyday of totalitarianism in Europe, that our universities had done precious little to breed either a respect for liberty or a hatred for war, Woolf believed such institutions should go back to true basics. "Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap easily combustible material, which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cages. Let the pictures and books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation by their own hands cheaply."

"The most convincing new university buildings", says Neary, "are those where students are given real responsibility for managing and supervising the spaces within which they learn, as well as acting as support for other students' learning. The Learning Grid at the University of Warwick is the most developed form of this new kind of space."

Neary was at Warwick before Lincoln. Designed by the university library with architects MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, the Learning Grid is, according to its manager, Rachel Edwards, "a technology-rich, flexible and informal learning environment, open 24/7 with a capacity for 300 people". Essentially, this is a fusion of a library and a common room. It allows disciplines to cross. It encourages students to help one another as well as themselves. It is generating fresh lines of research. "It's been breaking down the gap between students and teachers," says Neary, "with students becoming part of the academic project rather than consumers of dispensed knowledge."

Now that Neary had given me a concrete, and successful, example of what a new "learning landscape" might be, my mind flashed back to the visit I made a few months ago to the new Rolex learning centre at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland. Designed by the Tokyo-based architects, SANAA, this extraordinary curved and light-filled building, with its garden courtyards, its continually shifting floors, its almost complete rejection of conventional rooms, its lack of corridors and doors, and its gentle spirit of playfulness and inquiry, has been built to bring students from all faculties together. Here is a happily uncertain place of research, of academic inquiry, of debate, research and new thinking. Everything seems possible here. No restrictions on physical movement or thought. "Our focus", says SANAA, "is always to find different relationships."

This is very much what Neary and his colleagues are rooting for, too. It implies, though, nothing less than a quiet revolution in the ways British universities are designed and run. It also demands fresh and original thinking. "One thing I noticed as we travelled from university to university", says Neary, "was how there's a tendency to copy or clone what other universities have already done. While this leads to some incremental learning about what makes teaching and learning spaces work, it does point to a rush to conformity rather than experimentation."

"You can't contain a university," says Neary, meaning that its academic mind should always be expanding and that architecture and space planning within buildings need to respond to this idea. "I suppose you could sum up my approach, in headline terms, as a damning critique of the neo-liberal university. It is, but it's far from impractical. In fact, as Woolf implied, you could create a new, innovative and academically challenging environment in buildings designed in a spirit of poverty."

Neary doesn't demur when I suggest that is what certain orders of medieval monks tried to do. The austere beauty of a Cistercian monastery was no real bridle to thought, although, of course, such places were there to serve God before anyone or anything else.

So, has much of new university building been carried out in vain over the past decade? "Of course there've been some beautiful and excellent buildings", says Neary. "What's been wrong is the whole approach to treating universities as businesses, as an appendage to the economy, rather than places where ideas can be dangerous."

Learning Landscapes in Higher Education makes the point that while academics have been able to make an important contribution "as clients and customers of the project management process", they need to inject academic ideas into the shaping of university buildings and campuses. The Learning Grid at Warwick and the Rolex learning centre at Lausanne give some idea of what may yet be done, and yet, as Neary would say, these examples, no matter how alluring, are not there to be copied. Universities must work things out for themselves.

Meanwhile, as Morag Schiach, pro-vice chancellor for teaching and learning at Queen Mary, University of London and one of Neary's interviewees, bluntly reminds us, "the extent to which higher education should foster intellectual and cultural liberty in the face of pressing economic demands from industry and government is still unresolved."


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May 05 2010

Lecturers walk out over funding cuts

Thousands of students in colleges and universities are expected to be affected by 'widespread disruption' today as planned protests take place over cuts and possible job losses

Press Association

Colleges and universities will be hit with the biggest outbreak of industrial action in more than two years today as lecturers walk out in a row over funding cuts.

Thousands of students are expected to be affected by "widespread disruption" due to planned protests over "massive" cuts that would lead to job losses, the University and College Union (UCU) said.

Union members at 11 further education colleges and two universities in London, plus Sussex University, are taking part in the action, which will include a march and rally in Westminster this afternoon.

They are protesting against funding cuts for higher education which the UCU says are nearing £1bn , on top of the £340m savings further education must make in the next academic year.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "All the tough talk about cuts has moved on and it is no longer just figures on paper.

"People are losing their jobs and access to education is disappearing. We believe in the power of education to make a real difference to people's lives and do not think we should be slashing funding at a time when more people than ever need access to education.

"UCU members are still on the side of education and we will be fighting to save jobs and defend education."

The London universities taking part are Westminster University and King's College London, which is seeing its second action this year.

The FE colleges are Barnet College; City and Islington College; College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London; College of North West London; Greenwich Community College; Hackney Community College; Lambeth College; Lewisham College; Richmond upon Thames College; Tower Hamlets College and Westminster Kingsway College.


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February 21 2010

Swiss precision

Get right inside SANAA's spectacular new campus building at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne



February 09 2010

Written off

The decision by a London university to axe the UK's only chair in palaeography has been met by outrage from the world's most eminent classicists. John Crace on why the study of ancient writings matters – and why history will be lost without it

Dry, dusty and shortly to be dead. Palaeographers are used to making sense of fragments of ancient manuscripts, but King's College London couldn't have been plainer when it announced recently that it was to close the UK's only chair of palaeography. From ­September, the current holder of the chair, Professor David Ganz, will be out of a job, and the subject will no longer exist as a separate academic discipline in British universities. Its survival will now depend entirely on the whim of classicists and medievalists studying in other fields.

The decision took everyone by ­surprise. "It was only recently that Rick Trainor [the principal of King's] was calling the humanities department [to which palaeography is attached] the jewel in the university's crown," says Dr Mary Beard, professor of ­classics at Cambridge University. "There had been a complete overhaul of ­minority disciplines in the mid-1990s, so there was consensus that everything had been pared down to the bare minimum."

How things change. With Lord Mandelson – in his incarnation as secretary of state for business, industry and skills – now imposing a minimum 10% cut in spending throughout higher education, universities are looking to slash and burn departments. And esoteric subjects such as palaeography are easy targets; they attract comparatively few students and, most importantly, comparatively little in the way of research grants – the only way the past few governments have measured a subject's worth.

But if Trainor was hoping palaeography would do the decent thing, he badly misjudged the situation. Professor Ganz – the fourth person to have held the chair since it was endowed in 1949 – didn't roll over and die quietly. "On the assumption that this means the end of the chair of palaeography, I am having to fight for my subject," he says, "and I have been deeply moved by the level of support from friends, many of whom I have never met."

That's pretty much all Ganz is saying for now – but, having initially raised a very restrained, academic form of hell, others are now doing the talking for him. A Facebook page to save the chair has more than 4,000 members, and many of the world's most distinguished classicists have petitioned King's to ­reconsider its position. Even his ­students are stepping in to defend him. "Without a palaeography professor such as David Ganz, not only will King's be sorely deprived of a basis on which to teach almost every other university discipline," says Alexandra Maccarini, "but the study of humanities everywhere will suffer from the absence of a devoted specialist in the subject."

In its strictest sense, palaeography is the study of ancient manuscripts whereby scholars can read texts – often partial, as many exist only in fragments – and localise and date handwriting accurately. This may sound arcane, and to some extent it is. But it is also the building block of all classical and ­medieval scholarship. According to Ganz: "Anyone who goes into a ­university library will within a week find an ancient manuscript that no one has yet properly understood."

"It is academic forensic science," agrees Dr Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the department of the ­Middle East at the British Museum. "Many of the printed texts we use today – be they the Bible, Livy's poems or Shakespeare's plays – do not come from a single text. They are a collation of various manuscripts that may have been altered by scribes over time. A palaeographer can help determine which is likely to be the most authentic.

"It's about understanding the codes, the signs and the ligatures [common abbreviations] that were in use at different periods of a language's evolution, so you can interpret words that may have been rubbed away and see what may have been added at a later date."

Academics, of course, enjoy a good squabble, so it's hard to get universal agreement on what does and doesn't fall within palaeography's reach. For some it includes major finds such as the Rosetta Stone, from which ­hieroglyphics were first decoded, and Linear B, the ancient Minoan script translated by Michael Ventris. ­Others insist that, as they were carved in stone, they fall within epigraphy. Some restrict ­palaeography to merely classical texts; others include medieval and Renaissance texts.

Either way, the point is much the same. It's not just that we wouldn't have a clue what the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cyrus Cylinder (over which the British Museum and the Iranian government are currently locking horns) actually mean without palaeography; we wouldn't know how to evaluate their historical importance. Multiply this by every fragment and every hand-written folio, and the history of the world begins to be up for grabs.

"Palaeography is not simply an arcane auxiliary science," says Professor Jeffrey Hamburger, chair of medieval studies at Harvard University. "It is as basic to the training and practice of ­historians as mastery of Dos or Unix might be to a computer scientist.

Not that palaeography has the answer to everything. No one has still made head or tail of Linear A (dating back to around 1900BC), and the Indus ­Valley script of the third millennium BC is still a mystery. But just days before King's made the announcement, its sister London institution, University College, was boasting how two of Ganz's former students, Dr Simon ­Corcoran and Dr Benet Salway, had pieced together 17 fragments of parchment that form an important ­Roman law code – believed to be the only original evidence yet discovered of the Gregorian Codex (a collection of constitutions upon which a substantial part of most modern European civil law ­systems are built) that had been thought lost for ever.

Giving up on palaeography is like giving up on art, history and culture. It's like deciding we know all we want to know about the past, so we're not going to bother to find out any more: "It's not as if we can come back to it in 15 years' time if we then decide there's enough money," says Beard. "Palaeography can't be taught in an online tutorial; it's a skill handed down from one academic to another. If King's does go through with its decision, it's the end of the subject in this country."

Reading the past: What palaeographers have done for us

Dead Sea Scrolls

A collection of about 900 documents on parchment and papyrus, ­written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, ­dating from about 150BC to AD70. Discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The earliest surviving ­examples of Biblical texts.

Indus Valley Script

More than 600 symbols have been found – primarily on seals – belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation of 3,000BC. Most inscriptions are only four or five symbols in length. The longest is 26 symbols. Scholars have yet to decode them, though it hasn't stopped them arguing whether it does actually constitute a genuine language.

Rosetta Stone

Technically one for epigraphers, but many palaeographers claim it for themselves. The stone, discovered by the French in 1799, contained three parallel texts – hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek – and was the key that ­enabled scholars to decode ­hieroglyphics for the first time.

Beowulf

The most important work in Anglo-Saxon literature, the Old-English epic poem of 3,182 lines is known from a single manuscript that is estimated to date from AD1000. The manuscript has crumbled over time and scholars are still working on its preservation and revealing lost letters of the poem.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri

A collection of documents from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras excavated from the old rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient Egyptian site thought so unimportant it was left almost untouched for centuries. Extracts from the plays of Menander and the Gospel of St Thomas are among the most important finds.


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