Photography: Is it really considered a “soft” subject? The UK photography experts dig in…

by valrac4_a3kqdy

A leading research group representing the top universities across the UK has recently come out with an Informed Choices Study Guide for UK high-school students looking to enter university in 2011. In the guide, the Russell Group confirms that “rumours have circulated for years that certain universities favour students who take ‘hard’ subjects over newer ones such as business studies or photography,” writes the British Journal of Photography.

In general, subjects referred to as being “hard” are more traditional and theoretical subjects, for example: English, History, Physics and Chemistry. “Soft” subjects are usually subjects with a vocational or practical bias, for example: Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies.

This sparked huge debat about what photography courses do indeed do for our young generation and naturally, we at Photo Life were interested in what they had to say. Have a look at what some of the leading photography experts in the UK said to BJP:

“Speaking to BJP, John Kippin, a professor in photography at the University of Sunderland and chair of the Association of Photography in Higher Education, comments: ‘The idea of any subject being ‘soft’ is ludicrous. Subjects such as Art, Design and Photography teach students, when taught properly, to think creatively and to act independently.’

Kippin adds: ‘More than ever we are in dire need of people who can link their imagination and creativity to make practical contributions to our culture and future. The answers we need to build a successful society are not all scientific as many believe. Conventional so called ‘progressive’ thinking around ‘traditional’ subjects overlooks the contribution of creative subjects to the quality of our lives, to our thinking and philosophy and to the fastest growing industrial sector which is our creative industries.’

“Creative subjects are under direct attack by the current government who have effectively withdrawn all support for these subjects in privatising the University system,” Kippin tells BJP. “This is madness, but one might expect Universities to adopt a broader and more balanced view. The word ‘University’ is based on the latin word ‘Universitas’ meaning ‘the whole’ and it is this holistic view of education that we are in need of to provide proper progression for the students of the future. In the case of photography it is incredible simply how unaware some of these so called ‘redbrick’ universities are of any kind of visual culture. Their short-sightedness, arrogance and intellectual snobbery is breathtaking. Photography is something that is a part of all of our lives. It is part of an ecology of the visual world and it influences everything we do. How can that not be worthy of study?”

Conrad Tracy, course leader at the Arts University College in Bournemouth, adds that the definition of a “soft subject” is open to interpretation. “I think the notion of a ‘soft subject’ is an interesting one, as is the idea of a generically good or ‘best university’,” Tracy tells BJP. “I find the assumption demeaning and patronising to young students to discuss education in those terms. How does one define ‘soft option’, is this a subject one finds easy? Then perhaps an individual who has natural numeric ability will find an A Level in mathematics easy, therefore a ‘soft option’, so therefore should they avoid this subject, and conversely a student who has natural artistic and creative ability avoid art/media related subjects? Of course they shouldn’t.

He adds: “As any good teacher will tell you, education is about the individual and getting the best from them, so naturally playing to their strengths. With regard to ‘best universities’ surely we should be looking at the best university for the chosen degree subjects, and indeed the best universities for the individual students.”

Sian Bonnell of the University College Falmouth agrees. “Studying any of the disciplines of art, design or photography equips students and graduates with far more than just a basic subject knowledge. They learn how to problem solve, think creatively and they learn how to be adaptable and business minded.”

She continues: “The subject area might be considered by some as ‘soft’ but it is a myth to think that these subjects are easy to pass. I would argue that students studying art design and photography have to work just as hard if not harder than non ‘soft’ students in other disciplines – art students still have to write dissertations and produce practical work to achieve the standards and in doing so employers often find that it is they who are infinitely more employable because they have learnt creative thinking skills.”

Tracy concludes: “Using the Russell group as the predominant standard for English and UK education is unhelpful, and merely continues to support an outdated attitude to education in this country, accepting the hierarchical status quo, while undermining the importance to the economy – creative industries – and British culture that arts education provides through the talent that it generates.”


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