“It was very weird. Two days before closing they were saying that nothing is going to happen, just be calm, the show will still happen, you will still have the studios and facilities,” a student explains while they and their classmates at UAL have gone through turmoil during the pandemic – classes were called off and moved online, while students had only days to gather years of work into bags and suitcases before the order to “stay home, stay safe” was put in place. Three months later and the lockdown is beginning to ease, the annual shows do not happen physically for the first time ever. Students have had all of their courses moved online, communicating with their tutors through Zoom and design programs, making do with what they had at home to create their final pieces. The landscape for the students’ future in the field of arts has shifted, with the fashion industry being held accountable for its lack of representation, racism, and class hierarchies. The Pause or Pay campaign, started by UAL students Aziza Kadyrova, Gina Grünwald, and Nur Syahadah, aims for UAL to pause the courses or reimburse its students, as well as getting students options for dealing with the aftermath of the effect of the pandemic lockdown has had on their studies.
“Pausing is only an option: many students, myself included, cannot afford to pause and would prefer graduating on time and getting a reimbursement. People willing to ‘Pause’ could be offered to complete their studies with a flexible schedule” – Aziza Kadyrova
“Pausing is only an option: many students, myself included, cannot afford to pause and would prefer graduating on time and getting a reimbursement. People willing to ‘Pause’ could be offered to complete their studies with a flexible schedule,” a founding member of Pause or Pay, Aziza Kadyrova explains. “Many courses, like mine, are focused on independent studio work, where the student is able to design their own pace of studies. Otherwise, pausing the entire student body and restarting at a new date could’ve been another option, it would just shift the term dates as a whole,” she continues. The option of pausing does not seem impossible to other university institutions such as the Italian Polimoda school has done, where students are given the option of pausing their studies and restarting their course at a later date.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has begun a mass action for debt relief and compensation for class time lost and resources that students have not been able to access. According to its own research, one in five students has not had access to their learning at all during the lockdown, while one in three says it has been of poor quality. Although UAL is not a part of NUS, the Arts Students’ Union representing the colleges supports the Student Safety Net campaign set out by the NUS, which falls along similar lines to the #PauseorPay action. It outlines key objectives for students to not fall through the cracks of education as a result of COVID, with targets like ‘Re-Do’, allowing them to re-take the year and receive maintenance support at no extra cost, ‘Reimburse’ fees from the government and ‘Write-off’ debt for students for this year. Similarly to the #pauseorpay campaign, it looks for the options of tuition fee refunds for the switch to digital learning without student acknowledgment or permission. Aziza from the Pause or Pay campaign knows that the pandemic has been a difficult time of adjustment. “We were always asking to be given a choice as studio-based learners: to pause all studies until it was safe to return to normal on-site tuition, or partially reimburse us for the lack of facilities and other provisions we agreed to when signing up for the course.”
“I am lucky to have course leaders and a course team that displayed strong leadership and responded to the changes in an effective way as much as they could. However, both students and staff have been at the receiving end of unclear communication and weak leadership from University’s senior management” -Nur Syahadah
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the highest authority students can complain to about their universities, published guidance last week saying that despite the pandemic, universities still had to provide students with an experience ‘broadly equivalent’ to what they were promised, or consider refunds. As arts universities rely on their workshops as an essential part of the course, this may be the right course of action. The Government has also announced last week that it was launching a review into online learning for the new year. This review would omit the effects these last couple of months have had on students or the toll it has taken on their academics. Aziza Kadyrova agrees to say, “Extensive in-person collaboration, rehearsal spaces, workshop facilities and access to professional film, sound, and lighting equipment are only a few key aspects of my course – online, there is none of it.” It can be increasingly more difficult for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to deal with the changes, as well as disabled students who relied on the facilities even more and those on placements. They have had to find ways to cope during the lockdown without access to university resources or facilities.
The effects of COVID will be felt well into the future for these cohorts – impacting everything from earning potential to jobs and opportunities down the line.
The effects of COVID will be felt well into the future for these cohorts – impacting everything from earning potential to jobs and opportunities down the line. Syadahah said, “I am lucky to have course leaders and a course team that displayed strong leadership and responded to the changes in an effective way as much as they could. However, both students and staff have been at the receiving end of unclear communication and weak leadership from University’s senior management – tutors and students have simply had to make do.”
From the conversations with heads of schools and courses, refunded fees do not seem to be on the table for UAL. This means that the changes that have affected students, most importantly – those in their final year – have damaged their practice and portfolios, directly affected by the lack of access to studios and workshops. Aziza Kadyrova explains, “Prior to UK lockdown, my MA course was organising a three-week festival at the Platform Theatre showcasing professionally produced work from my cohort. The hour-long solo performance that I have been developing for almost two years was meant to be the culmination of my artistic and academic practice at CSM and open doors to the global industry. It was canceled – and so far there are no plans to reschedule. It will be difficult for my cohort to use the upcoming digital showcase as a platform: most of us don’t have presentable video material of the work as we never got to realise it and set or costume renderings cannot fully represent our live practice that emphasises audience experience.” Aziza is one of many students who has had to radically alter her project to suit the ‘new normal’. As a result, years of work that should have culminated in a performance in front of industry professionals have gone down the drain. For these students, the Pause or Pay campaign is an opportunity to remedy what went wrong and regain control over their future.
Working virtually isn’t working
The university has said that it sees virtual learning or a mix of both in-person and online courses, as the future of arts education. While going digital has significant advantages for courses that don’t rely on workshops, there are still drawbacks to this strategy that underline why Pause or Pay is so important. Gina Grünwald comments, “neither students nor staff are trained to guide and produce work in virtual learning set up. To think that a 4-week-ONLINE ART SCHOOL-crash-course is sufficient to prepare our tutors in delivering high-quality teaching and the same learning outcomes is ludicrous. That the UAL executive board believes that it does speak volumes. Almost every BA Fashion student at CSM is heavily dependent on the studio access for sewing machines, irons, heat-press, print room, or, in my case, knitting machines, yarn prepping machines, etc. This list is endless. The studios are our homes, where we spend endless hours and days producing work. I feel terribly homesick and disconnected from my natural habitat – the beloved CSM community. I am out of touch with the irreplaceable support and feedback from my tutors. The online tutorials lasting 10-20min every week are not helping, although I truly value the time and effort that tutors are putting into pushing us as creatives. Spending endless hours in virtual screen-hangouts with my cohort makes me feel unproductive and even more depressed.”
For students, moving their creative practice online has been a tough pill to swallow. Many have noted that they are not as creative without the facilities and being stuck inside has impacted their mental health as the situation worsened globally. Losing family and loved ones to the virus has given them a heavy burden only exacerbated by the approach of the university.
Pause or Pay asks to bring forward the two-year post-study work visa extension (originally planned to launch in 2021) for graduating international students.
International Students and Fees
Many students attending the University of the Arts London come from outside of the UK and from disadvantaged backgrounds. They often do not have resources to pay for the courses outright, even with the university offering some scholarships, relying instead on private or government-backed loans. Those coming from abroad rely on international visas that expire regardless of the effect of the pandemic. “We have sacrificed a lot to be able to study in London, and now we are hung up to dry without any rights, soon to be kicked out of the country as our visas expire in October. Pause or Pay asks to bring forward the two-year post-study work visa extension (originally planned to launch in 2021) for graduating international students. Because of the pandemic, we are robbed of the short four months of networking/job-searching opportunities we had; we couldn’t complete our final projects, and finding work will be even harder due to the crisis in the arts sector. We won’t be able to go to our own graduation or present at a physical showcase, as those are planned for November and January. Student consultation is so crucial because, without it, the management isn’t aware of nearly half of the issues their students face. The virtual model in art education has never been tried before for a reason – and we’re all paying,” Aziza shares.
“One of the main reasons why I enrolled at CSM was to have access to facilities in an expensive city like London. We all understand it is hard to blame someone. However, I worked very hard to save the money to pay for my tuition fees and that money is simply being wasted.” -Aziza Kadyrova
Being in London, UAL is one of the most expensive art schools in the world. “As London is such an expensive city, students do not have the money to rent a second studio space where they can freely work with social distancing rules being in place,” according to Gina. The university offered this within its walls, allowing students to have access to world-class facilities in exchange for fees. For a student on the MA Fashion Communication course, the campaign lays the groundwork for real communication between the university and the students. “I did not pay for an online course, which would have cost half or less of what I paid,” she says. “One of the main reasons why I enrolled at CSM was to have access to facilities in an expensive city like London. We all understand it is hard to blame someone. However, I worked very hard to save the money to pay for my tuition fees and that money is simply being wasted.” Students pay course fees that start from £360 for a 4-week short course to £11,220 for a fifteen-month postgraduate course for UK/EU students (with costs almost doubling for international students). Syahadah brings it down to logic – “It’s fair to ask for money back on legal contractual grounds, as we’re not going to use facilities promised to us in our course handbooks or have the same teaching standard. Considering the handling of the situation so far by the UAL, it would be the only humane response. Students have lost their income or had it reduced considerably, and have no means of supporting themselves through these times and the fees they paid for a course could help them through.”
The pandemic has thrown these fees into sharp relief, showing the disparities between services received and the fees that students have paid in full. This is what students like Aziza, Gina, and Syahadah, backing the Pause or Pay campaign, are addressing – that the students’ transaction of world-class education in exchange for fees has not been fulfilled. Aziza mentions that it is not only a problem for this current class. UAL is already planning on making changes to the coming terms, potentially worsening the situation for future students with a delayed start date and a shortened amount of time between terms with no non-teaching weeks. “There is a big question mark whenever the next cohort of students is mentioned. Will the international students making up 40% of UAL be able to come to the UK? Will home students sign up for expensive courses in the middle of a pandemic, knowing they can wait out and apply when it’s safe? Will the EU students decide to come considering the precariousness of next year’s Brexit?” These questions should weigh heavily for the university who rely on the best young graduates from around the world to fill its ranks at UAL.