United Kingdom Art and Design Practice-Based PhDs: Evidence from Students and Their Supervisors

Article excerpt

Art and design practice-based PhDs have been developing in the United Kingdom for the past 15 years, yet there has been almost no research on how these degrees are experienced by students and their supervisors. This article sets out to remedy this lacuna by portraying some of the problems encountered by students in working toward such degrees and some of the solutions they arrive at with the aid of their supervisors. The article is based on extensive qualitative interviewing of both groups.

For the past 15 years, art and design practice-based PhDs have been developing in the United Kingdom (Candlin, 2000), and there is also evidence of development in the USA (Buchan, Doordan, Justice, & Maraolin, 1999) and Australia (Dally, Holbrook, Bourke, Graham, & Lawry, 2003). This route to the PhD constitutes an innovative, and, on occasion, disputed form of UK research degree in art and design. The dispute centers around the compatibility of art and design with the protocols of research (Macleod & Holdridge, 2004). In effect, in institutional terms at least, the proponents of art and design research degrees have triumphed, for to date there are over 40 UK universities and colleges which offer practice-based doctoral study (Macleod & Holdridge, 2004).

A crucial difference that distinguishes this innovative form of UK research degree from the more traditional modes is that creative work is submitted along with a written thesis. The differences are itemized in the following extract from a review of institutional practices by the United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education:

(1)The final submission must be accompanied by a permanent record of the creative work(s).

(2) The creative content must be set in its relevant theoretical, historical, critical or visual context.

(3) The length of the accompanying written thesis must normally be between 30,000 and 40,000 words.

(4) The written thesis and the creative work must be of equal or near equal importance.

(UKCGE, 1997, p. 15)

In addition to the above differences, institutional evaluation of students' work also combines traditional PhD criteria such as evidence of independent work and originality, together with how adequately students have managed to synthesize considerable analytic narrative with their creative works.

The development of this innovative UK research degree has been influenced by two particular educational forces, and the following explanation of these borrows heavily from the analysis of Candlin (2001). First, there has been the gradual introduction into UK art education of increasing amounts of theory, initially from art history during the 1960s. This intellectual impetus was strengthened during the 1970s by theory emanating from feminist and conceptual art. As Candlin (2001, p. 305) notes: "Feminist and conceptual art practice formed the routes through which a separation of theory and practice was questioned and bridged." These theoretical developments were reinforced by other bodies of cultural and sociological theory, such as that of Bourdieu and Foucault, introduced to the UK art and design community in the following two decades. The result is that there is now "an identifiable tradition of critical theory and practice within art education" (Candlin, 2001, p. 306). This theorized questioning of art practice has provided the intellectual foundation for subsequent programs of research that included practice-based research degrees.

The second major influence that helped propagate the development of this particular kind of research degree emanates from changes in the funding structure of UK higher education. Since 1992, state research funding, which constitutes the largest and most regular source, has been tied to periodic (approximately every 5 years) national Research Assessment Exercises (RAE). These exercises that cover all disciplines and subject areas, involve national disciplinary panels evaluating the research output and culture of university/college departments. …