The Glasgow Guardian speaks to one of the students pushing for legal action.
A group of postgraduate students at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) are filing a class-action lawsuit against the institution following their “unfair and callous” approach to the Master’s students studies during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Harriet, one of the students affected and a prominent figure in the push to legally hold the GSA to account, to delve into why the students are taking the institution to court in a process she described as “very emotional”.
Speaking about the “distinct lack of support” for her and her fellow Master’s students over the initial months of the pandemic, Harriet told us that “all one-year courses had their second semesters, seven weeks, cancelled”, and that there was also no contact from tutors within this period. Remote online learning “only started 10 weeks after [lockdown started]”, at the start of the third semester. However, due to the nature of their craft, many people “couldn’t do their work from home” due to the lack of supplies and studio space. “There was a big gulf of silence from GSA,” she commented. In a report published by Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), GSA’s online provision was described as being run with a “perceived deficit in staff skills” and that “the institution has arrangements for managing academic standards, and the student learning experience, which are of limited effectiveness.”
Whilst acknowledging that going virtual for a time was unavoidable, the students felt that they “were not getting what they had paid for, and what [they] were getting was not comparable at all”. “For home students it’s £8,000 a year for the Master’s, and for international students it’s £20,000 a year,” Harriet told The Glasgow Guardian, emphasising the high costs all Master’s students had incurred. She stressed that whilst the GSA were “open to talk at first, a wall went up” and there was “no discussion of fees”. After a period of time, Harriet said that students then received a “generic email that stated there would be no refund of fees”.
Students were also told that the only two options were to either continue with the online learning or withdraw without a guarantee of re-entry. “We don’t want to make it all about money,” she said, but she emphasised that for the different quality of education students were facing, many felt there should be compensation, for both the second semester, and the cancellation of the renowned in-person degree shows where many students look to for the opportunity to get their “big break”.
In terms of student support, Harriet “didn’t hear of any”, saying it felt “non-existent”. She told us that students had no contact with tutors for 10 weeks following the announcement of the pandemic. There were “no emails of support from GSA” and she stated that the art school “could have done so much better”. Sculptor Penny Anderson, one of the other front-facing students in the lawsuit, is disabled, and said: “My support assistant was furloughed with no consultation, alternative provision, or notification. All of which meant I did not feel able to accept the option of delaying the last part of my study until January this year, as I would have preferred.”
There were issues at GSA prior to the pandemic, The Glasgow Guardian was informed, including problems with studio arrangements, poor workshop access, and the length of time some students had to wait before receiving training with certain tools, giving the example of the welding induction that was “only given on the very last day of semester one”. These points were highlighted in the QAA report whose recommendations included: the provision of workshop and studio space; assessment design; addressing student feedback; as well as recommending greater independence in the complaints procedure.
Initially, the students opted to lodge a formal complaint to GSA. The complaint was submitted on behalf of “126 students from across all 5 schools” at GSA, due to their dissatisfaction that they “were not getting what they had paid for, and what [they] were getting was not comparable at all”. Following the submission of the complaint, the group went to the SPSO Ombudsman however Harriet said: “They just sent it back saying that the GSA had done everything. It felt like they hadn’t even tried to understand.”
Following this, the students approached the QAA who subsequently published its summary which was described by Harriet as a “very damning report of failings in the provision of education”. Currently, the group is being legally represented by Harper McLeod lawyers, and are looking to take GSA to court. The students are appealing for funding via a crowdfunder page online, and they are also holding an online art auction to contribute to their legal costs.
Regarding outcomes, the group would like to see various results: current students would like a monetary return for the seven weeks of semester two in which they received no teaching. Others, who withdrew from the course, would like to have their fees written off for those seven weeks. Those that withdrew during the pandemic would like to be able to return to the GSA with their places on the course guaranteed, which is something that Harriet said the school had not committed to.
To contribute to the student fund, visit “Art Students Demand Justice for Failed Education” on CrowdJustice. The group are also accepting donations for their online art auction, the details of which can be found on their Instagram and Twitter pages, using the handle @artschoolracket.