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Artesnet in Porto

13 May 2010

Peer Power! The future of Higher Arts Education in Europe ESMAE, Porto, 7-8 May 2010

In an ideal world this would have been posted ‘live’ as it happened … sometimes hotel broadband is not what it should be, even when you have to pay for it!!

Day 1 Thursday 6 May

I had to leave far too early in the morning to be able to exercise my right to vote in the UK Parliamentary election. Oh well, I will need to rest my faith in the good sense of others… is that sensible?

By late afternoon the earlybirds had begun to gather and soon there was enough to warrant a taxi ride to a little restaurant in a village on the outskirts of Porto. The Artesnet steering group got to work immediately with a first meeting fine-tuning the events for the next couple of days. Networking began and I found one of the keynote speakers, Dani Salvadori, is the sister of one of my colleagues in Southampton… small world!

Before the main course arrived so did the Irish crew. The resurgence of the Icelandic ash cloud hadn’t spoiled the final Artesnet meeting after all and it now looked like we would have a full house! It’s a good start, a good deal better than the state of British politics, which by the end of the day looks messier than the table we left behind and a lot harder to clear up!

Day 2 Friday 7 May

The steering group spent the morning in conference but shortly after mid-day the entrance hall of ESMAE (Escola Superior de Musica e Artes do Espectaculo), host institute for the meeting, had begun to fill with delegates. Old friends and new introductions, the poor students couldn’t get to their notice boards for strange bodies in the way. There were 85 delegates representing 51 institutions from 22 countries.

After the statutory welcomes it was time to get down to business with the first of the keynotes. Each of the three Artesnet strands being addressed had three questions to answer and drive the discussions. How far the keynotes were actually devised in direct response to the questions is difficult to say. Each ranged far beyond the scope of the questions but nevertheless they provided multiple answers and raised new questions of their own.

Dani Salvadori focused specifically on the case of her own position at Central St. Martins College, part of the University of the Arts London. As her contextual introduction pointed out, this is a very particular situation not least because of its location, London. With 4700 full-time students and a further 12000 on short courses and a dedicated staff of 7 generating a multi-million pound income from ‘Knowledge Transfer’, it is perhaps difficult to see how this can transfer to an art school of 100 students in rural France, for instance. A bright and engaging presentation explored three models for generating innovation but plumps for the ‘open’ model of Henry Chesborough of UC Berkley.

Clearly, the success of linking the Institution to the outside, and being open to external ideas, is very much dependent upon what is outside to link to. Something that was to come up again later was that success, or impact, can be educational or structural but needs to be measurable. Apart from financial benefit perhaps there are, as yet, no measures in place.

In the presentation from Marlies Leeghwater it was the increase in mobility that was not measured. Specifically addressing Artesnet Strand 2 on Quality Assurance Marlies focused on the success of implementing the Bologna Process and what lies beyond. If the real goal of Bologna and creation of the HEA is workforce mobility then we might be surprised to learn that there is no data available to measure its impact. Yes, the 3-cycle system is in place, use of ECTS, the Diploma Supplement and Quality Assessment needs more work and only some Quality Frameworks are in place. And incoming students are on the increase with 25-30% of the world’s international students coming to Europe. But what this has meant for the mobility of students and staff we don’t really know. In any case, we have a target of 20% student mobility in the next ten years. We can also expect to see growing focus on wider participation in HE and with this a demand for ‘transparency’, in other words… ranking. It will come whether we like it or not!

In a recently released EU Green Paper ‘Unlocking the Potential of Cultural Creative Industries’ such potential is clearly identified with the use and development of new (digital) technologies. It was charming then, to see Mick Wilson present without the aid of Powerpoint and working from handwritten notes… a fine demonstration that creative thought was never contingent on technology! Also in contrast to the Green Paper, which is ultimately about jobs and developing the economy, Mick asks us to replace ‘employability’ with ‘agency’. This is based upon the Irish version of the (Bologna) definition of the PhD, which is described as equipping the student with the skills and tools to be ‘an agent of change’. In calling for an ‘expansion of radical experimental pedagogical experience and debate’ Mick posits education as contested space, either a space for continuation or for transformation. In a formal education the Academy functions to reproduce and continue the traditions of the discipline. But Mick argues that as much contemporary ‘education’ is informal and comes to us through the Media etc. He also points out that prior to WWII the radical and innovative lay outside the Academy rather than within it. If the PhD is to be something other than an investment in the individual for knowledge capital as an asset in a knowledge-based society, that is an agent for change and transformation, then it needs to be open to and work with that which lies outside the Academy.

It was perhaps too much to expect Mick’s proposals to be fully explored in the follow-up breakout session. Though ‘transformation’, ‘contradictory space/polyphonic voice’ and ‘agency of social change’ may have been cited by Klaus Jung, the session moderator, as topics of discussion there seem too many irrecconciled positions. Inevitably, newcomers to the discussion insist on entrenched ideas such as research must follow a scientific methodology, discipline practice can not be research or that it must contribute new knowledge to the field. Perhaps we need to adopt the Swedish model where, it seems, artistic methodology is constitutionally (?) recognised as equivalent to other pre-existing methodologies. As long as ‘evaluation’ is equated with ‘justification’, why does what we do matter, we may still be a long way off Mick’s ‘meaningful disagreement’ rather than attempting consensus.

Unfortunately I cannot tell what happened in the other breakouts because, obviously, I wasn’t there! Those stories will have to come from else where. I’m sure they were just as lively and the discussions continued through dinner as a 10-piece brass ensemble from our host’s students entertained us. The formalities of the day wound up with a screening of an early version documentary of last year’s Teachers’ Academy in Sofia, any suggestions still welcome. Afterwards, as some attended a student production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ others wended their way to the bar recommended by Chico, ESMAE’s Dean. Relaxing after a long and very full day, little did we know what was brewing in the sky above…

Day 3 Saturday 8 May

The second day of the meeting started bright and early with an introduction to the Portuguese experience by Alberto Amaral as an expert in Quality Assurance. Though specifically Portuguese I think the experience would be recognized in many places around – a massive and largely uncoordinated expansion of HE followed by frantic attempts to put in place some measure of quality control. The expansion began in the 80’s, for the most part in private provision, but has continued in the 00’s with available programmes rising from 3k to 5k in the last four years. Between ’95 and ’05 three different agencies tried to monitor quality in this extra provision but without successfully closing a single programme. These agencies have now been replaced by a single national agency and demonstrates a shift from quality improvement toward public accountability in what was described as ‘a loss of trust’ and ‘new public management’. Recognising that the six-year cycle required for any full implementation of a new QA method is too long Institutions are asked for a self-declaration of ability to properly support the new programmes. As if by magic the level of provision has already dropped from 5k to 4k through this new computer-based self monitoring! But be warned … though such policies can only ever be ‘soft law’ ie no enforceable Euro-legislation, quality assurance through the likes of the AHELO project (Assessment of HE by Learning Outcomes) means ‘ranking’ is surely on its way!

The morning progressed with a continuation of the previous day’s breakout sessions. This time it was introduced by reference to the EU Green Paper and in particular the quote

A more intensive, systematic, and wide-ranging collaboration between the arts, academic and scientific institutions should be promoted, as well as private-public initiatives to support artist-led experimentation

with the emphasis here on ‘artist-led experimentation’. The short morning’s discussion picked up on the creation of critical agencies and communities – across national boundaries and disciplines, the relationship between evaluation and justification and the feedback loop between experimentation and education. Beyond that it was a reporting session on the outcomes on this strand of Artesnet, namely the establishment of EUFRAD and the DEEP consultation. Details can be found on the Artesnet site so I won’t go into those here.

As ever with these things, they run a little late, and so did lunch. It was supposed to be set-up as a ‘speed-dating’ exercise where delegates could get to meet Artesnet’s trained experts to ask those niggling little questions that are not appropriate in a full-blown session. Perhaps it is an indication of the excellent opportunity for informal networking that there was virtually no take-up of the dating offers! Instead lunch continued in the fluid social mode of the entire event.

Lars, in particular, was pleasantly surprised to find almost the entire delegation stayed on for the afternoon’s final plenary, the last public session before the Artesnet team set about writing up the project and preparing for publication later in the year. The session combined short presentations from the individual strand leaders, where we are and where we still have to go, and feedback from the external observers from the Culture Executive Agency. Without going into any detail, it’s a very fine job well done! But its really only the start, as they say, every end is a new beginning.

Right now the most pressing issue is something else and we must turn our attention to that turbulent sky – Porto airport has been closed down due to the ash cloud and 85 delegates need to find a way home - good luck !!

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