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Universities of art and design adapt to show the value of their degrees

A wide range of new programs in design and media broaden their appeal to a job-focused cohort of students.


When Ron Burnett arrived in Vancouver to become president of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 1996, a majority of students were enrolled in the visual arts. Today about 35 percent of the students are pursuing degrees in the visual arts, 40 percent are in design programs – the fastest growing area – and the rest are in media. “Student demand shifted,” said Dr. Burnett, “and we now have a more varied curriculum that embraces visual arts alongside all of our other disciplines.”

The changes are more of an evolution than an overhaul. Emily Carr introduced its first animation program in the 1960s; even in the 1930s, student interest “in the more practical program of design” was growing as the Depression took hold, according to Emily Carr’s website.

Indeed, as all three of Canada’s major art and design schools – Emily Carr, Toronto’s OCAD University, and Halifax’s NSCAD University – transitioned to universities over the past 15 years, they sought to broaden their scope and appeal by offering a wider array of design and media programs and fostering research capabilities. They introduced graduate degrees, courses in art history and criticism, research labs and, more recently, design and digital media programs. The changes are at least partly due to pressures of changing enrolment and a cohort of students concerned about the job prospects a degree will yield.

In Ontario, OCAD University realized years ago that the market for students who want to study visual arts “was tapped out,” said its president, Sara Diamond. Ontario’s central application centre for students going to university directly from high school reported in September that OCAD’s direct enrolment was down 15.4 percent this fall. The drop was tempered by growth in numbers of mature and transfer students, so undergraduate enrolment was down just two percent overall, said Dr. Diamond. Total enrolment rose for the fifth year in a row. Still, the growing skepticism among the public about the value of an art and design degree is having an impact. “There’s this really strong sense among some parents and in the media that if you pursue a career in these fields, you are not going to have a job,” she said. “We are working very hard to counter that view.”

Newly introduced programs combine engineering, business and science with art and design. These include a digital futures program, a master’s of inclusive design, and – to launch in 2016 – a master’s of health design. Another young initiative is an incubator for start-ups that just received almost $1 million from the Ontario government. The Imagination Catalyst, as it’s known, is a place where companies can come for help solving research problems. Some students who worked on these corporate projects were later hired by those companies.

But program changes like these have contributed to tensions at OCAD, where some faculty members recently objected to the process that saw Dr. Diamond reappointed for a third term. “We thought we were a university of art and design and we are becoming everything but that,” one unnamed faculty member told the Globe and Mail.

To be sure, all universities are under pressure to demonstrate the value of their degrees; the focus on job outcomes has hit some disciplines harder than others. The recent figures from the Ontario University Application Centre showed a decline in first-year direct enrolment in general arts programs this fall, while engineering, math and science held steady or grew.

Art and design programs face even more critical scrutiny by students and their parents, though it’s unclear whether that is warranted. A new survey by the Council of Ontario Universities found that employment rates for students of fine and applied arts who graduated in 2011 were in line with those of most other disciplines: 86 percent six months after graduation and 92 percent two years later. But the average annual salary of fine arts graduates was below average, at $30,737 six months after graduating and $35,993 after two years.

Emily Carr’s Dr. Burnett dismisses the popular notion of the starving artist as “just a joke.” Many of his school’s graduates have found lucrative employment in the film and gaming industries and in Silicon Valley, he said. Interaction and industrial design programs lead to “wonderful professions” that command high salaries, he added.

A recent survey of Emily Carr graduates over the last 15 years found more than 90 percent were employed; annual incomes varied from $20,000 up to $100,000. “The picture is very similar in a way to a traditional university,” said Dr. Burnett. Moreover, total enrolment rose four percent this year and the school is facing a space crunch. A new, larger campus just east of its current location is scheduled to open in 2017.

Another growth area for universities of art and design is research. At NSCAD, researchers are working with caregivers to redesign rooms to meet the needs of Canada’s aging population; they’re working with the agriculture industry to grow new materials that can be turned into textiles. NSCAD has taken part in a provincial voucher program that gives small- and medium-sized businesses modest grants to solve a problem by collaborating with university researchers, said Kenn Honeychurch, provost and vice-president, academic affairs and research. “NSCAD was quick off the mark to realize that research in the visual arts was expanding and becoming more interdisciplinary,” he said.

Still, the institution has been dogged by budget deficits and uncertainty over its future. A 2010 report for the Nova Scotia government recommended that NSCAD merge with Dalhousie University or Saint Mary’s University, but NSCAD’s board of governors rejected the idea this year. A NSCAD-commissioned study concluded that a merger wouldn’t save costs, said Dr. Honeychurch. In countries where art schools merged with comprehensive universities, the schools became departments that were “low on the totem pole for resources,” he said. What’s more, things are looking better – enrolment is up this year for the first time since 2008, largely due to more transfer and international students.

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  1. Guy Germain / October 23, 2014 at 09:00

    It’s very interesting that you note: “Indeed, as all THREE of Canada’s major art and design schools – Emily Carr, Toronto’s OCAD University, and Halifax’s NSCAD University …” (emphasis added). I’m sure the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, AB would have something to say about this omission!! Was this just an oversight on the part of the author? My daughter, who graduated from a visual arts high school with a major scholarship, applied to all THREE major art schools in Canada … but OCADU wasn’t among them. It wasn’t even in the running! Sorry. Happily, she was accepted into all three schools, and opted for Emily Carr as the best fit. More Ontario centrism … or just ignorance of the art school landscape in Canada???

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