Thursday, 18 June 2015

Distance learning and the arts: a portrait of lifelong education

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Above: Jéréme Crow’s ‘Self portrait with box brownie’

In the second of our series of blog posts to mark the centenary of the birth of NEC’s founder Michael Young, we turn to higher education. The Open College of the Arts (OCA) is one of several charities the social entrepreneur founded to extend educational opportunities.

Artist Jéréme Crow found out earlier this month that his Self portrait with box brownie has been selected for the exhibition of the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize 2015. Last year, Jéréme graduated from the OCA with a BA Honours in painting. His self-portrait will be exhibited at Piano Nobile Kings Place, London and Pallant House Gallery in Chicester later this year, alongside the other 99 self-portraits chosen from the thousands submitted to the judges. The Ruth Borchard Collection is the UK’s only public collection of self-portraits by British and Irish artists.

Jéréme’s creative life hasn’t developed quite as he expected when he was a teenager. When he left school in the early 1990s, he went to Cumbria College of Art and Design to do a fine art foundation course. His heart set on studying fine art at university, he headed to London. Before he had even attended his first lecture, he met a theatre design student. They got married a week later. His plans to study for a degree were pushed to one side when he and his wife had children and bought a house in Kent. Jéréme continued to paint and started exhibiting his work in local galleries while working as a special school teaching assistant.

Then, in 2011, Jéréme enrolled with the OCA. Like 50,000 other people over the last 28 years, he studied part-time. The OCA makes the arts more available to everyone – not as consumers of a commodity but as creators in their own right. Now offering courses in 13 creative arts disciplines, six undergraduate degree pathways and Europe’s first MA Fine Art delivered entirely by distance learning, OCA’s 2,000-strong student community is proof that the creative arts can be studied successfully outside an art college.

For the National Extension College, Michael Young’s vision was for ‘education without institution’. In 1972, he described the new Open University as ‘the first university in the world without walls.’ The National Association for the Education of Sick Children came about from Michael’s belief that even serious illness need not bring a halt to a child’s education.

When he founded the OCA in 1987, Michael brought to life an idea he had first had two decades before. Many people working in adult and continuing education at the time doubted that the creative arts – sculpture, painting, drawing, illustration – could be taught at a distance. He wasn’t prepared to believe them. OCA’s current student population shows he was right too that creative arts education at higher level wasn’t only for young people who had just left school. For the UK undergraduate population as a whole, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 62% of students in the UK are under the age of 25 and 26% are over the age of 30. The picture is rather different for OCA students: 63% of them are aged between 30 and 60 and 11% are over 60.

Jéréme’s says the solitary nature of distance learning suits his working style more than a traditional bricks and mortar university would have done: ‘Studying through distance learning gave me the isolation I wanted to get stuck into my painting. My approach to painting has developed beyond recognition and is now much more about the process and research than before embarking on a degree with the OCA.’

It’s hard not to imagine, more than 25 years on, that Michael would have taken restrained pleasure in repeating Jéréme’s words to the detractors who were convinced you can’t teach painting at a distance. OCA is evidence that distance learning gives many artists the time and space they crave to find their own creative voice.

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