UCOL to pull plug on fine arts course

By Laurel Stowell, laurel.stowell@wanganuichronicle.co.nz

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Whanganui UCOL's glass and fine arts degrees are simply not sustainable with the current low enrolments and high costs, UCOL chief executive Paul McElroy says.

The polytech plans not to take on first-year glass and fine arts students next year, in a "pause" to find ways to put art teaching on a stronger footing.

Friends of Wanganui Polytechnic spokeswoman Deb Frederikse is aghast at the idea. She said it was essential to keep the enrolments going next year, and if the degrees were lost it would be a huge amount of work and cost to get them back.

She contrasted the present situation with 2001, when UCOL took over the former polytechnic. It had 1300 students, employed more than 300 people and contributed $20 million to the local economy.

At the time UCOL said it would "maintain and increase the quality of the qualifications of nationally and internationally recognised courses", and would review its charter with Wanganui every five years. The Friends group said they did not believe either of those things had been done.

Arts and culture were important to Wanganui's identity and future, and Mrs Frederikse said it was nonsense that arts graduates couldn't get jobs.

Mr McElroy said he understood the importance of arts to Wanganui, and wanted to work with the city to develop a more certain future given government funding priorities. He looked forward to working with Wanganui District Council.

Wanganui Glass School has the equivalent of 18 full-time students, including five in their first year. It needs 60 to be viable, and also needs a suitable long-term base and lower costs.

The Whanganui UCOL Bachelor of Fine Arts degree has 55 students across four years, with 19 in their first year. Mr McElroy didn't say how many would be needed to make it viable.

He listed the problems with it: arts are not a Government priority, there is low demand, there's competition from 35 other arts and design courses in New Zealand and UCOL's funding has been cut by $2.6 million.

Another major concern was the earthquake risk to the Taupo Quay fine arts buildings.

The most earthquake-prone of them - about 10 per cent of the total area - has been demolished. It would cost $8 million to rebuild them all and an unknown amount to strengthen them. They would also be at risk from liquefaction in an earthquake.

By contrast, arts and design at UCOL's Palmerston North campus had 200 students in up-to-date facilities, and there were no cuts needed. Seventeen other courses on the Palmerston North campus are facing cuts, though.

In 2010 UCOL embarked on a project called Prospective, to look for fresh ideas for its arts and design courses. Two symposia were held, and consultation was done.

A draft report has been written. Asked whether the Chronicle could have a copy, Mr McElroy said some information would be published when it was finalised.

The Prospective project had identified possibilities to explore.

One of these was expanding the fashion degree, which had good job outcomes, and linking it with industry. Another was adding Maori fashion design.

By 2014, Mr McElroy hoped to have a new initiative up and running in Wanganui, providing Maori art and design programmes with the help of a partner.

Other options would be progressed as government priorities and funding allowed, he said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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