Into the forest, out of the house © Jonny Briggs, who is graduating from RCA this summer.
A Skillset survey carried out a few years ago put the number of students leaving degree courses with photography or photo imaging in the title at around 5000 a year. Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries, concluded that workers in this sector are highly qualified, stating “more than two-fifths have a degree and over a fifth have a technical qualification, including a quarter of all photographers”. The value of these qualifications isn’t universally recognised, however, as a recent Russell Group report showed. A survey of 20 universities, including prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, found that most colleges consider photography A-level to be a “soft” option.
In reality, qualifications in the photographic industry differ widely. New photography and photo imaging courses, plus drives to support apprenticeships and work-based learning, mean there is a growing range of vocational and academic paths to choose from. But with Government plans to increase tuition fees from the next academic year, vocational approaches could boom as budding photographers seek out affordable ways to learn, get work experience, make contacts and gain qualifications.
Foundation Degrees in Arts (FdA) were set up in 2001-02 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and DfES as an alternative to the traditional three-year degree. A vocational qualification of “academic and work-based learning through close collaboration between employers and programme providers, usually universities in partnership with further education colleges”, it typically takes two years full-time and is equivalent to the first two years of an honours degree.
Skillset developed a guidance document for colleges offering photo imaging courses, summing up industry views on the most important topics to be included in the curriculum. For those who want to keep up with professional development, Skillset has also developed flexible training with its ‘Build your own MA’ short courses. These are industry-focused and offered individually or in combination, with credits being used towards a qualification ranging from a Postgraduate Certificate to an MA in Professional Media Practice. Of particular interest is a course in Digital Video for Photographers, which is under development at University of Gloucestershire.
The Photography FdA at City College Brighton and Hove has been running for two and half years, and has seen a steady rise in the number of applicants for just 15 places. Head of photography Graham Hulme, who has worked at the college for nine years, says, “After the first year, word spread and numbers have tripled from when we started the course. I also think there’s been an influx this year before tuition fees go up next year. If a student gets on a course this year, the tuition fees will stay the same for the duration of the course.”
Hulme researched the FdA qualification nearly three years ago, and at that point found “perhaps, no more than 20 or 30 courses”, a fraction of the number of degree courses. He believes the short duration of the FdA is one of its selling points – the fees are the same as for a degree, but students have to pay for two years, not three. But the flexibility of the qualification may also make it attractive, as students can progress to the final year of an appropriate degree if they decide they want to take it further (although in practice, this depends on matching the student’s previous two-years’ study to an appropriate course).
This doesn’t have to be done straight away – students “can wait about six years and still turn the FdA into a BA later on”, explains Hulme. Students also gain from studying in an institution, as they can use its facilities and equipment. City College has in-house studio space and “a HD Hasselblad medium format camera and scanners”, high-end kit that would be beyond most students’ budgets.
On the job
At the start of 2010, Skillset redeveloped its Advanced Apprenticeship in Photo Imaging for 16-25-year-olds. A Government-funded, modular scheme, it was developed from a similar (and successful) programme delivered by the MoD and the Defence School of Photography to train photographers in the Forces. The idea is to “raise competency standards to an apprenticeship level of confidence” and the apprenticeships are kept deliberately broad to give them “as wide an appeal as possible, as jobs are not as clearly defined as they used to be”, according to Skillset’s photo imaging sector manager Pippa Walkley.
Successful apprentices get a nationally recognised Level 3 qualification, and “hopefully future employment”, which could be as anything from a trainee social photographer or minilab printer to a picture library keyworder. Apprentices are paid no less than £2.50 per hour by the employer throughout, but the exact sum depends on their age and the number of hours they work. An apprentice aged 16 to 18 when they start can work a 37.5-hour week, including the time they spend training, for example, and earn a minimum of £2.50 per hour. Once the apprentice turns 19, they can work up to 40 hours a week including the training, which has an incremental effect on their wage.
If the apprentice is over 19 when they start, they can work a 40-hour week including training, and have an hourly minimum wage of £2.50 per hour for the first year. For the second year they will earn the national minimum wage, which is currently £4.92 per hour for a 19 or 20-year-old, and £5.93 for a 21-to 25-year-old. These are minimum rates, and there is nothing to stop an employer paying more, but the levels have led some to brand the scheme little more than undervalued, cheap labour.
Even so, it could prove popular. Getting into the photography industry is difficult because the market is saturated and competition is fierce, and young image-makers are often badly informed about the kind of work available to them. “One of the most difficult things is when someone says ‘I want to be a photographer’,” says Walkley. “There are so many sub-sectors in photo imaging and there’s no right or wrong answer to the question, ‘Should I go to college?’ It’s all about trying to provide as much information and guidance as possible so that they can make informed choices about careers in the industry.” With this in mind, Skillset also provides information on its website, at www.skillset.org/careers.
“Apprenticeships wouldn’t suit everyone, some people need space in college to find their way and explore, others want to be in employment,” adds Walkley. For the rest, she’s been sourcing employers willing to take part in the Advanced Apprenticeship, and has had input into the creation of a new apprenticeship in Creative and Digital Media, which offers units in web design, interactive media and production, as well as photography and image management.
In tandem with this, the National Apprenticeship Service, a separate entity has developed a database in which photographers can submit information and search for vacancies.
Foundation Degree interns
Skillset is also working on industry-led Foundation Degree Internships, combining Foundation Degrees with unpaid, work-based learning. Pitched as a vocational, work-based route through Higher Education, these qualifications will feature on-the-job training and structured academic teaching. The student interns will be taken on full-time, two to three days a week for a minimum of 25 weeks per year by the host companies. The businesses are encouraged to commit to taking on interns for two years, and should allow the students to attend regular tutorials and study blocks at the Skillset Media Academy. The University of Westminster has already agreed to provide one such internship at its Harrow campus.
The host companies get the interns’ help free of charge, though they’re encouraged to provide travel or subsistence support; the students pay 50 percent of the college fees. At the end of the two years the student intern will have earned a Foundation Degree qualification, which (as with other Foundation courses), they can top up over a third year to gain an Honours Degree. So far the programme is only targeting picture libraries and agencies, but there’s potential to expand it, Walkley explains.
“Student fees for UG courses rise considerably from September 2012,” she says. “Many media courses will cost £7500+ and students will want to be sure they have selected a course that the industry values. A course that allows you to combine the rigour of a degree programme with the opportunity to develop workplace skills as well as good contacts will become increasingly popular, and this programme is such a course.
“Students will leave with a high level of professional skills, honed by working alongside media professionals, complemented by academic and theoretical understandings and excellent interpersonal skills. They will be creative, responsible, reflective and effective young professionals ready to slot straight into creative teams when they start work.”
At the other end of the academic spectrum are courses such as the full-time two-year MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art (RCA), which has provided many young photographers with a route into the highly conceptual art world. “The MA is not about careers and professionalism at all, but personal development,” says Olivier Richon, professor of photography of the RCA course. “It’s for people who want to develop their own practice and explore how to think about images.”
For Richon there’s no direct, vocational qualification for art photographers, because being ‘an artist’ sums up so many different skills. “It is quite ambivalent as to what one means by a practising artist,” he explains. “Some students may have shows in good galleries, but don’t end up making any money from it, and so do other things to make money. Others may use their skills as a photographer to take pictures of sculptures for galleries, or of architecture, for example.” Around 85 percent of former students end up “doing photography in various forms”, though, with some going into teaching or taking up artist residencies.
One of the most-respected courses in the country, its applications have remained stable at around 200 for 20-22 places, but Richon says student fees have already made a difference over the last few years. “I think the students are different now,” he says. “If they decide to study, they usually commit themselves more. Our students are much more prepared to borrow money, be in debt and work at weekends. It’s a different attitude.”
With so many options available, young photographers need to do their research and work out what suits them best, Nick Sargeant, head of the art and design department of the University of Gloucestershire, points out. “The decision regarding going straight into industry, taking an FdA or getting a degree is one that prospective students must make.
“Like other universities, we are looking at the possibility of two-year fast-track degrees. Whether that would be appropriate for photography courses is something we need to decide. Alternative study methods are bound to be on our agenda but the bottom line is that it’s important we deliver courses that help students acquire a range of skills to enter employment.”
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