The Times NOVEMBER 18, 2014 - by Jack Malvern


They were places of wild creativity that spawned some of the most successful British artists and musicians of recent decades. Yet the country's art schools - which helped produce the Brit Art movement and bands including Blur and Pulp - have lost their spark, according to some of their most distinguished alumni.

Musicians, artists and film makers - from Brian Eno to Grayson Perry and Steve McQueen - have declared that the introduction of tuition fees and raising of entry grades could lead to Britain losing its edge as a creative nation.

Eno, who attended Colchester Institute's art school before joining the art-rock band Roxy Music, said he "wouldn't get into art school now" because of the pressure on colleges to run themselves as businesses.

"One of the great things about art schools is that they created really unusual social mixes," he said during an interview for BBC Radio. "So you would end up with people who you really wouldn't have met otherwise. And you would get on with them and you would do things with the fact that they were different from you."

Now, he added, we have "economic cancellation - poor people won't go to art school so much because they can't pay the money. And academically challenged people won't go to art schools because they won't get an interview.

"So eventually you chop out all the elements that make for the fantastic and fiery social mix that art schools used to be, and you end up with a group of essentially middle-class people with lots of A stars - and that is not for me a recipe for a good art school."

Maintenance grants for students were replaced by student loans in 1998, when the government also imposed annual tuition fees of £1000 ($1800). In 2006 universities were allowed to set their own fees of up to $5400. The cap increased to $16,100 in 2012.

Jarvis Cocker, the singer in Pulp, said fees would have stopped him attending St Martin's College, which he immortalised in his song Common People.

"If you're going to fork out that money, you're going to want to know there's a career at the end of it and that's not artistic thinking," Cocker said. "Artistic thinking is to just have a go and see what happens."

Grayson Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, said that Britain's art colleges no longer represent the nation, as they did when he attended Portsmouth Polytechnic between 1978 and 1982.

"There was that huge burst of social mobility through the '50s, '60s, '70s. When you see politicians selling this idea of a creative nation - that creativity is not something you can bottle. It comes out of the very culture of the context of political things - the justice, the stability, the fairness, the equality. And if these things die then the creativity will die."

Steve McQueen, an Oscar winner for 12 Years A Slave, and Damien Hirst, the most successful of the young British artists of the 1990s, said that the lack of discipline at art college fed their creativity.

McQueen described his foundation course at Chelsea School of Art as "the first time I could breathe", while Hirst - whose fine art course at Goldsmiths, University of London, now charges the maximum fee - recalled what his college had told him when he arrived: "It's your responsibility to make sure you get an education out of this. We're not going to force you. You're not going to be noticed if you don't work, and who cares?"

Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, said: "The university fees, particularly lack of funding for postgraduate fees, are a cause for concern and one of our major missions is to build the number of bursaries available to our students. We have ongoing funding from companies such as LVMH and Swarovski."