Art School failings outed by student action

By Katy Scott

Students at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) have had very limited access to essential studio spaces since the start of the pandemic a year ago. Many have resorted to carrying out risky design practises, such as welding and woodwork, unsupervised in their bedrooms.

The Art School maintains that currently “on-campus access is restricted to bookable safe study and safe workplace”. However, students filed a formal list of complaints in December and a recent investigation by an independent party as part of the GSA’s complaints handling procedure partially upheld three complaints. These issues were outlined in an open letter to the GSA.

One such complaint claimed that there has been “no workshop access for students on most GSA courses despite months of opportunity for workshop preparation”. 

The other partially upheld complaints concerned limited studio space and online access to resources, stating that the “standard of education has deteriorated beyond a tenable point […] a fact that has not been addressed whatsoever by the institution […] Students cannot maintain a studio-based practice for one day a week […] the digital ‘solutions’ provided by the GSA have been at best unimaginative, and at worst non-existent”. 

Photo credit: Lucy Hornsbury

NoStudioStories is an activist account on Instagram created in response to the Glasgow School of Art’s “Studio Stories”, a proposed series of videos to “connect” art students to their school. NoStudioStories accepts submissions from art school students that showcase the “reality” of their situation.

The account now has over 1500 followers. “The positive response has shown me that it’s really needed,” said the creator of the account, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“In the trailer for Studio Stories, the Director of the Art School Penny MacBeth said ‘it’s all going really well’ about five times. I watched it and thought it was just so insulting. It felt like it wasn’t really for us as students, it was just a marketing thing.”

“They wanted to gloss over the problems.”

“I wanted to counter their approach by making it democratic and opening up the forum for people to say whatever their experience was. Things aren’t going well at all and I wanted to show the reality of what people are going through.”

Most students at the GSA didn’t have studio space from the start of the academic year for six weeks and after that they received only one studio day a week despite there being no difference in lockdown measures. 

“It just seemed disorganised,” said NoStudioStories.

Some students have received as little as four days of studio access overall for the academic year, and no workshop access at all.

“A really big negative has been the health and safety issues,” said the anonymous creator. “People using their rooms as spray booths and using very toxic fumes, people setting things on fire – I’ve been sent shocking photos. We have had quite heated zooms with our tutors about the conditions. 

“GSA’s line is that they would never encourage people to do these things in their rooms. But the thing is, we’re forced to because we still have the same assessments going on, we still have the same expectations of us. Although they’re saying this on paper, the fact that they’re not adjusting any of the requirements means that people will get bad marks if they don’t do these things.”

Photo credit: Lucas Orozco

“The other big negative is the effect of isolation on your mental health. A lot of students don’t have living rooms, so they’re having to use their bedrooms: living, working and sleeping in the same room for months and months.

“Even in normal circumstances we don’t have lots of contact with tutors, so a lot of the learning takes place through being in the studio with your class and talking about your ideas. That’s something that the Art School has said is very important, that studio environment. Removing that has really affected people’s work and their mental health.”

NoStudioStories is separate from (but supports) the Pause or Pay campaign. Given the applied nature of arts studies compared to other courses and the need for materials and tools throughout the course, the campaign is calling for arts institutes to either pause studies for this year (given the unworkable conditions) or compensate students for their tuition fees, reaching into the tens of thousands for international students.

“There have definitely been problems for a while. I think the pandemic has just amplified a lot of them […] They don’t really seem to put us first or seem bothered about the education of their students. I mean specifically the senior management – I think there’s a lot of really amazing tutors and technicians who work there that really do have the students’ best interests at heart and are really trying to give us the best experience despite the difficulties. The staff we actually have contact with have a quite difficult time as well.

“The senior management just don’t interact with us at all: the tutors are our only point of contact, so even though we know they’re on our side and they’re quite powerless, they’re the only people we can complain to.”

When asked if they had received any correspondence from the GSA about the account, they simply replied ‘no’.

A spokesperson for the GSA said: ‘Courses were modified this year to ensure that students could study and submit assessments wholly online if necessary.

“All GSA students should have completed their on-line health and safety inductions. No student should be working with any materials or conducting any activity that can cause them immediate and serious harm, destruction of property or public alarm.

“We have introduced additional communication consultation channels at this time. These are detailed in the regular information sent to students.

“Any student who has specific issues or concerns can raise them with their Programme Leader, Class or Lead Rep and with Student Support Services.”

Last year, the GSA was ranked last in the UK for student satisfaction, with an average percentage 57.6% (National Student Survey 2020).

Article cover photo credit: Lucy-Pearl Petts