A few weeks ago, I shared the dispiriting news that the University for the Creative Arts had announced plans to withdraw from Medway, shuttering its campus at Fort Pitt, Rochester, in September 2023. UCA also announced its intentions to excise its provision of Further Education from all campuses.
The range and candour of comments on the original Linkedin post speaks to concerns, felt locally and nationally, in regards to the responsibilities of education providers to the specific regions in which they situate, and to the histories from which they’ve benefited. Many see UCA’s decision as resulting from, and now enabling too, the UK government’s strategic devaluing of creativity and all its would-be practitioners.
I’ve been reflecting on these things too. I guess as good a place to start as any is why I care at all about the fate of that brick-built colossus sitting astride Fort Pitt hill, given I left the university a little under two years ago, and have few regrets I did.
In one way, the answer is obvious. I have an attachment for Rochester. I am sentimental about it. I studied there in the mid-90s, and taught there in two satisfying chunks, once with the photography department, as a spry videographer, and later, as a greying, marginally-less spry course leader for an animation degree. In addition to these lofty academic pursuits, I also worked as barkeep and licensee at Rochester’s student bar, which taught me more about the importance of community to the student experience than any number of journal articles or workshops since. I looked after Rochester’s student accommodation, and designed and installed, wheelbarrow-by-wheelbarrow, the campus’s balcony garden – twice. I’ve painted a good number of Rochester’s walls multiple times, hoovered its carpets, deodorized its lecture theatres, and in all these unremarkable ways, sought to enhance its learning spaces for the benefit of everyone. In addition, I represented Rochester endless times at schools, at career fairs, in films and on showreels, at open days, and in concert halls across Europe and at international conferences. Most rewardingly, I worked with generations of students from the Medway area (and lots from much further afield too), and formed close bonds with long-serving colleagues and alumni.
That I remain emotionally invested in the Rochester campus is surely self-evident. But while it is certainly true Rochester feels ancestral for me, I have to ask why. The answer cannot be found in all the time I’ve given that building, but rather in why I gave that time so completely, so consistently, and for so long.
My first home was a static caravan, after that a council house. Growing up, my one-parent family was routinely poor. I failed my 12+ exam, which, according to the educational system of which I was part, meant I wasn’t promising enough to go to grammar school, and by implication, a ‘good’ university. Instead, I went to a secondary modern, where I met a range of impassioned teachers who treated the educational system of which they were part with appreciable disdain, refusing it any further power over me. That particular school, and those particular people, accomplished two things: they revealed to me there are systems of inequality baked into how we educate, and the power those systems exert is sustained by a form of Stockholm syndrome, which relies on hostages agreeing with their lot and accepting, as incontrovertible, that some children are more valuable to society than others.
As it happens, I left that school with enough A grades at A’level to go wherever the f**k I liked. Instead, I went and did my Art Foundation course at my local college, because neither Oxford or Cambridge, or wherever, was quite the place for a boy who wanted to blow things up on movie sets. Importantly, I was able to walk to the college campus from the estate I lived on, an estate, incidentally, infamous in the local press for its ne’er do wells, ruffians and ‘dole scum’.
Next, I chose UCA Rochester, or as it was back then, the Kent Institute of Art & Design. There were likely much prettier places in more salubrious parts of the country, but the course I wanted to do was there. Anyone who knows me now who knew me then will rightly baulk at any attempt to lionise that time; our particular undergraduate course was a failed experiment. That said, in and around the nuts and bolts of what I was supposed to be doing, I ended up editing the student magazine. In fact, I ended up doing a bunch of things, including graduating with a first class degree and going on to do my Masters. I remember very vividly the year two contextual studies lecture about postructuralism, delivered in Rochester’s lecture theatre, which gave me the intellectual courage to come out as queer. You might say, art school did exactly what it was supposed to do: I went in thinking about myself in one way, and came out thinking differently.
I didn’t plan on teaching at Rochester after my Masters degree. It wasn’t my ambition to teach at all. More prosaically, I just valued the relationships I’d made there, the first suggestion I should teach coming from a senior member of staff I’d enjoyed working with and admired very much. What followed was a sustained period of excitement and adventure, in part largely because I worked, cheek-by-jowl, with a team of lecturers so committed to delivering transformative student experiences, it was frankly addictive. That I ended up giving so much to the job of teaching, returning to Fort Pitt these few years later to ultimately assume the role of a course leader, is a mystery to some, who perhaps hoped for me something showier, or for whom Rochester was a nest from which I never truly fledged. But there is power too in recognising what happiness feels like when you find it, and if not ‘happiness’ as a constant state of bliss, then happiness as a simple, rather solid feeling; a feet on the ground sensation, a click.
So, yes, I clicked with KIAD, likely because it was configured in the image of my secondary school, not in terms of bricks and mortar (for there is no other building quite like the Rochester campus), but in terms of its social contract. In this sense, Rochester was configured in my image too; a space for bright young things who’d failed at things; a space for bright young things who perhaps didn’t think of themselves as such, and so a space for the righting of wrongs, a place for making things right.
As a course leader, I was often exhausted, often frustrated, but I was never once confused about my responsibilities as an educator, role model and advocate. In this, I modelled myself on the teachers of my secondary school, and on the lecturers I worked with at the beginning of my teaching career. Like them, I sought to be fearlessly kind and honest and bold, and I never forgot, not once, that the only business I was in was the business of making a difference; of giving power away to young people who often arrived without it. To teach at Rochester, because of where it was, and because of who it was who came there, was to see inequalities still at work in the lives of individuals and then do something about it.
Ultimately, the reason I went on to resign from UCA, with no small amount of anguish, was because the job roles devised for myself and others by the senior management team were unrecognisable, emptied as they were of both specialism and activism (or teaching, as some of us old-timers know it). I saw in that change the intensification of something now culminating in the closure of Rochester; let’s call it the triumph of placelessness.
After the merger, seeing the Kent Institute of Art & Design and Surrey Institute of Art & Design combine, it was marketing heresy to place-name your respective campus or make distinctions between them. That the campuses comprising the new ‘UCA’ had root-systems of their own, indigenous and site-specific, was seen as working against the ambitions of ‘brand UCA’, which was to become ‘an idea of a university’, as opposed to an alliance of different places. Predictably, most staff across the different campuses worked in stealth against the stupidity of this, as demonstrated in this oft-repeated exchange:
Me: “I work at UCA”
Me: “UCA Rochester – the big brick building on the hill.”
Them: “Oh, you mean KIAD?’
And it used to be that Rochester students graduated from Rochester cathedral, the highstreet black with the flapping of their gowns, and the city’s various hotels, restaurants and tea rooms busy with proud parents in posh clothes. The decision to consolidate UCA’s separate graduation ceremonies into a shindig at the Royal Festival Hall was taken, I guess, for reasons of cost-effectiveness, but had the additional effect of further prioritising UCA’s brand over its actual places. It was considered axiomatic that it was ‘obviously better’ to align UCA with a London location. But it wasn’t obviously better for Medway. I’m pretty sure the Royal Festival Hall didn’t need UCA’s money, and certainly not more so than Rochester’s hotels, restaurants, tea rooms, and cathedral.
But placelessness creeps in other more insidious ways too, as in the increasing disarticulation between UCA and its own disciplinarity; the little-by-little marginalisation of creative education in preference for cheaper-to-deliver business courses: the disassociation of art and design practitioners and educationalists from the running, and governing, of the ‘UK’s #1 creative university’. And while UCA’s identity crisis is deepening, it is not completely of its own making. We are witnessing an unprecedented attack on arts education, a kind of existential undoing enacted against an inarguably profitable sector, for reasons of ideological spite. That UCA is intent on remaking itself in the image of the prejudices levelled against it is ultimately as tragic and self-loathing as I was when I was ‘acting straight’.
‘Rochester was a nest from which I never truly fledged’. There is truth in that, but there is also truth in this: a nest is defined as ‘a place or environment that favours the development of something’, and in one form or another, there has been a nest for creative arts education in Medway since 1853. I’ve come to think of Rochester in precisely these terms. Certainly I nested there, and, by way of tribute to all those teachers who nurtured me, I built new nests there for many others. Cuckoos, meanwhile, are brood parasites. They don’t value nests, or who or what has made them, or indeed how long a nest might have taken to build or its value to all who used it once and all who might develop there in the future. Cuckoos are instead in the unabashed business of co-opting resources for their own advantage. Into the established nests of other birds, so the cuckoo hides its egg, and so putting all those other birds to work in the incubation of some furtherance of its own design. But before that, before the cuckoo can enact its plan, it must first dispense with the one egg standing in the way of its own.
For those of us who greeted the announcement of UCA’s closure of its Rochester campus with sadness and disappointment, it’s because we are puzzled and appalled by the university’s decision to dismantle so valuable a nest, in so distinctive an environment, at a time of demographic upturn and cultural transformation. For those of us who are angry, it’s because we suspect, despite all crocodile tears to the contrary and expressions of deep reverence for Medway, that UCA Rochester is the cuckoo’s sacrificial egg.
Sadly, with the closure of Rochester, we see very clearly UCA’s full-bodied embrace of placelessness, to which it has always been fatally attracted. Perhaps it has forever been UCA’s destiny to become the ‘Planet Hollywood’ of
creative arts business education, as it succeeds in being both ‘nowhere in particular’ and also ubiquitous.
But ultimately, what makes UCA’s decision to close Rochester so problematic is the dissonance of its own decision-making: as UCA contemplates withdrawing its commitment to the intellectual, creative and emotional development of sixteen-to-eighteen year olds, it does so in order to focus on its provision of undergraduate, MA and postgrad courses. I can only wonder from where all these sorts of more profitable students might be coming from, if no one is teaching creative subjects to young people anymore? Not from Medway obviously. But maybe from China? For even as Rochester is shuttered as too expensive to maintain after years of disinvestment, new UCA campuses are in the offing overseas. The optics aren’t great, and the messaging for UK students is worse; while UCA can find a good many reasons to discontinue its long-standing commitment to Medway, it appears to find fewer faults with outsourcing its raison d’etre to a country that, in addition to one day soon boasting a nice new branch of UCA, is already home to all those Vocational Education and Training Centres.
In the end, the pursuit of placelessness always leaves things hollow, and this one has a special name: it’s called a moral vacuum.