2.1. The Changing Higher Education Landscape
UK higher education has witnessed unprecedented changes and challenges over the last twenty years, ever since the Dearing Report (Dearing 1997, p. 101
) advocated the value and need to increase participation from previously underrepresented groups “as a matter of priority” and universities were given incentives to rise to this challenge, which became known as the widening participation agenda. This coincided with an introduction of loans and tuition fees of £1000 per student per year of study, which in England and Wales have successively increased threefold since their inception in 1998, with a “higher-than-expected share of universities charging the maximum fees (in 2016, all but three of the top 90 institutions charged fees of £9000 per year for all of their courses)” (Belfield et al. 2017, p. 5
). Seeking to secure “a sustainable future for higher education”, as promised by the controversial Browne review (Browne 2010
) and tuition fee reform in 2012, financial investment in the future of universities has increased, yet, at the same time, so have student expectations.
In response, the Higher Education and Research Act
) heralded a new regulatory landscape, most notably the Teaching Excellence Framework, awarding institutions Gold, Silver or Bronze status based on three proxy metrics of student satisfaction from the annual National Student Survey (NSS), non-continuation statistics and graduate level employability, and graduate outcomes (HESA 2018
), together with a qualitative institutional narrative. With the aim of this making perceived teaching quality more transparent and facilitating informed student choice, the policy seeks to represent and protect student interests through the creation of the Office for Students
) to ensure students receive “value for money”, a concept typically residing more comfortably in service transactions than in the traditional culture of higher education. Although inclusion of universities within the Consumer Rights Act
) has certainly signaled the beginning of a relationship change, cementing “advantages for the student because it involves a shift in power from provider to consumer” (Bunce et al. 2017, p. 1959
What is actually meant by “value for money” in terms of higher education, however, is currently the subject of much discussion and debate (Universities UK 2017
; McRae 2018
), with a related consultation on student tuition fees currently underway (Department for Education 2018
). However, whether students actually view themselves as consumers has been the focus of a current survey by ComRes on behalf of Universities UK
), reporting that 47% viewed themselves in this respect whilst the other 53% did not. Commenting on the survey findings, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK
), stressed that clearly “Students value a personalized and collaborative relationship, rather than a superficial consumer transaction. While students have clear expectations of their university, they also expect to shape their own experience.” The challenge for universities, then, is meeting and managing these potentially more demanding student expectations for an individualized experience in the context of increasing student fees, diversity and numbers, marketization, and a consumer-focused agenda. With its tradition of personalized studio teaching, arts education should be characteristically well-placed to respond to this. However, at a time when this volatile political climate is starting to challenge the sustainability of long-established pedagogies, research is concurrently indicating that not all arts students are successfully engaging, continuing, and attaining in their studies and with their wider university community (see Finnigan and Richards 2016
When considering interventions to address issues of student retention and attainment, there is strong evidence that “one size does not fit all” (Thomas et al. 2017, p. 10
). Understanding the local context and factors impacting on retention and attainment is essential to provide effective interventions. Structured, supportive working across the institution to enhance the student experience and engagement is considered to be a key element. The framework of student engagement described by Kahu and Nelson
) proposes that the student experience is situated within an educational interface within which students’ self-efficacy, well-being, belonging and emotions influence their relationship with the institution and their overall engagement and achievement. According to Thomas et al.
(2017, p. 3
), it is the “human side of education that comes first—finding friends, feeling confident and, above all, feeling part of your course of study and institution”. Interventions that can develop a sense of well-being and “belonging” can provide the necessary starting points for increased engagement and academic success.
Evidence from the initial “What Works” programs (Thomas 2012
) identified that it is the intended outcomes of an intervention and the mode of delivery rather than the exact type of activity that is crucial. Successful interventions shown to improve student retention and success were well-timed, embedded, collaborative, proactive, relevant, and monitored. Whilst interventions such as peer mentoring enabled students to develop supportive peer relationships, it was meaningful interactions and communication with staff which provided a greater sense of “belonging” and well-being. Additionally, interventions which appeared relevant with a clear academic purpose enhanced student engagement and academic practices.
2.2. Art and Design Pedagogy: Opportunities and Challenges
The economic pressures and changing political landscape outlined above produce a particular set of opportunities and also challenges for the studio-based pedagogies of art and design education. On the one hand, the personal and individualized teaching found in studio-based subjects could be seen as providing the more personalized education that contemporary students want. As Dineen and Collins
(2005, p. 48
) point out, studio teaching “narrows the gap between the teachers and the learner, which cast[s] the teacher in the role of facilitator and provide[s] opportunity for active, even playful engagement by learners”. On the other hand, with ever greater student numbers and the consequent drives for efficiency, the heavy demands that studios make on institutions in terms of space and staff time mean that the studio “is frequently seen as a luxury that can no longer be afforded” (Sims and Shreeve 2012, p. 64
; see also Swann 1986
). Moreover, art and design students frequently rate satisfaction with their courses lower than students in other subjects (Austerlitz et al. 2008
; Orr et al. 2014
) and art and design students have lower continuation and attainment rates than students on other courses (Finnigan and Richards 2016
). As Orr et al.
) point out, conceptions of “value for money” may mean that “if the students do not fully recognize the lecturers’ framing of their learning, then they may wonder what their fees are paying for” (p. 41) and, as such, “they may expect to be taught in a more explicit way than experienced in the traditional art and design studio” (p. 42).
Whilst much of the experiential knowledge of the practice of art and design cannot be transmitted via texts, students are expected to be able to “to speak and understand the language of their particular practice” and to explore verbally “the understanding we construct around artifacts” (Austerlitz et al. 2008, p. 141
). Much of this is developed through the social and interactive nature of the studio and dialogic “crit”, jury, or presentation sessions that often comprise both formative and summative assessment in many art and design courses. The briefs that students work to are frequently, and deliberately, open to a wide range of creative responses from students and to help them to develop experiences dealing with ambiguity and the unknown, as “‘not knowing what to do’ is often the origin of innovative ideas” (Austerlitz et al. 2008, p. 144
). However, several studies have documented the confusion and disorientation that students experience with this process, at least initially (Sovic 2008
; Akalin and Sezal 2009
; Orr et al. 2014
). Not only do they have to deal with the openness of briefs and a lack of formal teaching, many students also have to “change their mode of operating and reconstruct their way of thinking … [as] work produced within a particular aesthetic context is no longer acceptable in the culture of higher education” (Austerlitz et al. 2008, p. 134
; see also Caldwell and Gregory 2016
). Despite the initial bewilderment, many students do eventually experience a feeling of empowerment when they realize the “answer is brought about from within you” (Orr et al. 2014, p. 38
) and they start to appreciate the freedom that this style of education can engender (Caldwell and Gregory 2016
). As Orr et al.
(2014, p. 38
), explain, “Students do not receive an art and design education—they are supported in educating themselves and they ‘own’ their work … the lecturer’s role is that of a facilitator”.
A number of authors have suggested that not only is there a gap in expectations between students and tutors, but that the studio is “not simply a place” (Sims and Shreeve 2012, p. 57
), but “a state of mind” (Orr and Shreeve 2018, p. 156
), and can also be seen as a culture that students must adjust to in order to successfully operate within. Orr et al.
(2014, p. 138
) suggest that the narratives of the final year art and design students in their study point to a strong level of “enculturation”. Austerlitz et al.
(2008, p. 138
) also point out that “the term induction suggests that students need to adapt themselves to our ways of being and doing. For some students, for those with the right cultural capital, this is not a problem, but for others the failure to adapt becomes ‘their problem’” (see also Burke and McManus 2011
; Richards and Finnigan 2015
). As such, there is a need to search for and bridge gaps in expectations and understanding of what it is to study art and design in higher education in order to help students fulfill their potential and succeed in this environment.
The aim of this article is to assess the contribution of an initiative to foster a sense of belonging and improve the retention of students on art and design courses through the use of graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). The next section introduces the background to the initiative, both at a national and institutional level, before investigating the work of GTAs in art and design.