Arts: Photo failures expose tensions at royal college

There will be four blank spaces on the wall when the Royal College of Art opens its centenary exhibition next week - representing a quarter of the photography course who have failed to satisfy the examiners.

Students are up in arms about an unprecedented number of failures and re-sits on this year's Master of Arts in photography. In a dispute that seems to have its roots in the battle between art and craft traditions they have called for the resignation of the head of department and called into question the position of the external assessor, Michael Collins, a former Daily Telegraph picture editor.

A student, who preferred not to be named, said: "The suitability of the external assessor was raised last year with the head of department. He is a picture editor. We didn't believe that he would be able to judge fine art."

The college provost, Lord Snowdon, responded diplomatically, saying: "All exams are open to pass and failure. You can't have exams if you have a rule that nobody fails. I speak as someone who failed my architecture exams."

Two years ago, the department moved out from under the wing of advertising photographer John Hedgecoe into the choppier waters of the fine art department. Conceptual artist/ photographer Peter Kennard was appointed senior lecturer.

Students were told: "Our admissions procedure is such that you were chosen as one of a team of photographers spanning a broad spectrum of ideas, interests and approaches - from reporters through to visionaries." Now some at the more visionary end of the spectrum are being told that their two years of hard work and financial sacrifice have been wasted.

Zelda Cheatle, of the Zelda Cheatle Gallery which specialises in fine art photography, was invited by the college to give personal tutorials to all the students after their assessment. She was shocked at the marks, which were apparently revised upwards during the examiners' meeting to prevent even more failures. "You do not fail students at the final hour, of the final assessments, after two years of diligent hard work," she said. "If their work wasn't up to standard they should have been warned. Yet Michael Collins had actively supported and encouraged students at their pre-assessment. Personally, I would have passed all of them."

Mr Collins insists that the decision to fail and refer students was arrived at collectively, but, the head of department, Michael Langford, who took over from Mr Hedgecoe two years ago, made it clear that he was "shocked and upset" by the unusual number of failures. Mr Kennard would say only: "I fully support my students."

Mr Langford could very easily be seen as a part of the old school of craft photographers. He is the author of a number of respected textbooks on the technical aspects of photography but he insists that the move towards fine art was welcomed within the department.

As for Mr Collins, he was so keen on the new direction that he apparently applied for the job of senior lecturer himself. When he was pipped at the post by Mr Kennard, Mr Langford said: "I wondered whether the college felt he would be debarred from continuing as the external assessor, but Michael was supportive of Peter Kennard coming here." Then he added; "Mind you, I don't know what the situation is at the moment."

Mr Collins declined to comment on individual staff members but seems to have changed his mind about the course itself. He said: "All of the students have suffered because the course, and the faculty, are sub-standard. Traditionally the photography course rubber stamps MAs which is disrespectful to individual students and perpetuates an inadequate MA course."

Ms Cheatle disagrees: "What is good about the RCA course is the freedom and flexibility students have to create and every single year excellent students come out. Peter Kennard had done an amazingly good job in the short time he has been there. his influence is just beginning to filter through. The new group, which he has recruited, are an amazing bunch. The passion and enthusiasm he brings to the course is magnificent."

There will be a new assessor next year because Mr Collins has come to the end of his term. Mr Langford feels that the new assessor should be "someone with practical experience, as well as knowledge of art schools, who would empathise with the students", hastening to add, "not that that is a criticism of the existing one of course."

The students are awaiting the result of the appeal against their marks.

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