I am currently working for London School of Mosaic in the capacity of developing a higher education programme for Mosaic Studies. This is a subject area that has never been taught properly in both vocational and higher education in the UK - and arguably world-wide. Professionals had to either study in connected subject areas such as fine art, architecture or design, go to Italy to become a Master Mosacist at the renowned Friuli School of Mosaic in Spilimbergo but this requires command of the Italian language and staying in a remote town, or they could train in construction and tiling as a vocational option. Mosaic art is also taught as part of art history and classics programmes at so-called old or traditional universities in the UK e.g. King’s College London or Sussex University, however these are restricted entirely to theory and have little or no capacity for making mosaic or studying through making in an active workshop environment. There isn’t simply the capacity for research-intensive university to accommodate for this.
There is a difficulty to put mosaic art into a specific category: Is it a fine art, a craft or decorative art? I would argue this depends on the practitioner and in what field they position themselves, and this is an area of research we’re invested in at the school of mosaic. There were several attempts for art institutions and art schools in the past to establish a programme in mosaic studies, however this never materialised for reasons that are not properly documented, exemplifying just how big the gap in theoretical mosaic studies is, as well as the practice side of course. For example, Sir Henry Cole, founder of Victoria Albert Museum, had ambitions to turn a small studio for mosaic at the museum into a school in the late 19th century, while lecturers from Leeds College of Art wanted to establish a programme in the 1960s recognising the knowledge and skills to make and restore mosaics are missing or needed to be ‘imported’ from Italy.
Mosaic is practiced in the UK by many hobbyists and a small network of established practitioners who can make a living off their trade. I would argue this is so because there are not enough opportunities to professionalise in the sector, for example with adequate training and education. There could be vast potential to create a market for mosaic, as there is an untapped potential for commissioning and working with architects and designers, which could be bridged through having an institution that represents knowledge and networks of mosaic practice.
London School of Mosaic emerged out of a small studio called Southbank Mosaics, which practiced mosaic as tool for social cohesion and wellbeing, realising that in order improve its practice and secure further funding it had to shift towards establishing itself as training and education institutions - not only for the advancement of skills and practice, but importantly as hub for advocacy and research on mosaic too. With this aim we approached over 30 universities in the UK with the aim for one them to validate a BA in Mosaic Studies, which we conceived, bringing together expertise from art historians and practitioners who studied at the Friuli School.
While we found that some leaders of art schools were very responsive and helped us along the way to complete a validation partnership proposal through to committee stage, we found that vice chancellors and university management were reluctant to agree to such in the final stages. The feedback was that they needed to prioritise large numbers of students, i.e. we would have 30 max. in each year, which clashes with the demands of the industry with some art practices and subjects not requiring oversupply of ‘talent’. This exemplifies just how financialised higher education in art and design has become and possibly why deans, course leaders and lecturers in those areas feel powerless in doing something truly innovative in their institutions. This is why alternative art schools have been on the rise in the UK, which is an area that London School of Mosaic could well count itself as, although we have validation from other awarding bodies up to Level 4 and we charge fees in order to survive and offer our services.
Without validation it is not possible for our students to claim study loans from the government as well as being able to claim Tier 4 sponsorship rights in order to accept international students, which is why we’ve sought out the formal validation route. While Scotland has its own all encompassing validation authority, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, in England where we’re based there is no such awarding body that would ensure we can be validated up to Level 6 and qualifying as organisation eligible for student loan funding. The only way this can be achieved is through our BA being delivered as franchise course with a local university, which means we’re part of the university’s offer and qualify under the Office for Students register.
There is no single authority in England, except perhaps consultants like Independent Higher Education, where you can find out about the process of validation, and each university has different procedures and hierarchies to follow through. The regulatory framework is confusing and changes so regularly that even university leaders who we work with did not seem to grasp the full extent of the system.
What London School of Mosaic has done is to deliver a Level 4 Diploma validated by Scottish Qualifications Authority, as this was the only awarding body we contacted that fully understood this course was not primarily vocational but mostly academic. We’re in the process of partnership proposals to be followed up by a couple of universities, but understand this can be a lengthy process and requires the ongoing goodwill and support of specific people at a institution - at the right time. Brexit does not help in a risk averse environment that higher education has become, and which ideally would provide stability for employees of institutions and students.
Innovation in the subjects that universities and art schools teach can only be ensured if there are open minds at management level to listen to the advice of deans and course leaders, rather than being motivated by financially motifs. I can understand the difficulty of finance in the current competitive higher education market, but I believe an art school can only thrive if it can distinguish itself through a unique offer and innovative practice emerging from it.