Animation BA gets less than colourful response

Lincoln University's animation BA promised to make students 'industry-ready'. But graduates say it was a lost opportunity
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The Independent Online

When Rebecca Clay, now 23, signed up for a BA in animation at the University of Lincoln, she was hopeful about the future. Lincoln was one of the best places for the subject, she was told, so she imagined leaving with a degree that would get her a job in a television, advertising or film studio.

"I was hoping to get a good job in animation," she says. "I am not stupid. I realise that you have to work your way up. The university promised that they would make us 'industry-ready'. We were shown this amazing, fantastic equipment, including a motion-rig camera, and they said we would have a lot of guest speakers from industry to talk about topics relevant to our course and future careers."

The reality was very different, according to Ms Clay and many other students in her class. Some of the equipment didn't work, there were no industry speakers, the lecturers were nearly impossible to find, and there was no fixed timetable. "We are given a timetable, but then the lectures are cancelled, often on the day, without notice or adequate explanation," according to the complaint that the students filed with the university. "Our total lecture hours regularly fell below an average of half-an-hour a week, if we could find out when they were."

The seminars were little better, the students said, and the equipment was "appalling". Either there wasn't enough of it, or it was in very poor repair. "We were told to just buy the Animator Survival Kit and teach ourselves," their complaint stated.

Moreover, the marking was inconsistent and the lecturers negative. Staff told students that their Student Handbook was "bollocks", yet when they asked questions about grading, and so on, they were told to refer to the handbook, according to the complaint.

"Overall we have not received even a shadow of the service we were sold or that we paid for. We only expected to be given, and to need, a single 'shot' at university to progress with our lives in our chosen field. The University of Lincoln has ruined this single shot and we can think of no way that this can be retrieved."

The students, who have now graduated, became so concerned that they drew up a list of 14 complaints towards the end of their second year, which they submitted formally to the university. "Basically, we weren't taught very much, so the course was a waste of time," says Nicholas Thompson, 22, one of Ms Clay's classmates, who has found it impossible to find a job. "I am considering doing another degree now because I am not confident I will find a job in animation."

However, one student, Suzanne Askham, 22, is still trying to get a job in animation. "I have wanted to be an animator since I was six," she said. "This was my ultimate ambition."

After graduating last year with a 2:1 in the subject, she took unpaid work in London where, she said, she learnt more in six months that in her time at Lincoln.

Rebecca Clay has also failed to find a job in animation. She is now working in a shop and is hoping to set up her own business in fine art. "I have wasted three years of my life and all this complaining is a nightmare," she said.

All the students are demanding compensation for lost time and money, and for their failure to find work. If they do not receive this compensation, they are determined to sue the university. Their lawyer, Jaswinder Gill, of Ormerods Solicitors, who has specialised in higher education for 15 years, says that this is the worst case of its kind he has seen.

The students made their grievances formally known at the end of their second year, when they realised how little time they had to make good their lack of training. They had already complained through their class representatives who were treated with aggression, sworn at, or ignored, they say. They claim their formal complaint did not receive a response for several months. That allegation is categorically denied by the university, which says it replied within days.

"The students feel that they have not only been patient, but that they have followed all the procedures laid down," said Mr Gill. "By contrast, the university has been slow to respond. These are attempts to wear down the students, so that they disappear into the wilderness and give up."

When the students made their formal complaint, they asked for an expert to be brought in to give them a crash course. They were required to make a film but were worried about how they would do so without any knowledge. So, the university arranged for Barry Purves, a well-known animator at the company Cosgrove Hall, to give them three days tuition.

He was so affected by what he saw that he posted a report on his website, which supported the students' complaints. "I was shocked at the total lack of any tuition in animation principles, the lack of awareness of animation history, technique, films, and the lack of facilities available to them," he said. "I had to rush out to Smiths and supply even the most basic stationery needs. I was astonished but do not blame the students for one second."

The university responded to the grievances with an investigation. The report of that inquiry effectively accepted the justice of their complaints on the degree of industry involvement in the course, the timetable and quality of teaching, unprofessional behaviour by staff, and lack of resources.

Two members of staff left, and new ones were hired. Plans were put in place to increase the number of visiting speakers, to repair equipment, and to appoint two new external examiners. A senior member of staff was put in charge of quality and operational management.

Every student received a letter from Professor Vincent Shacklock, dean of the faculty of art, architecture and design, giving the university's response to each of the complaints. The substance of many of them was acknowledged. But each concern had been remedied, he said.

Professor Shacklock apologised for the negative comments of some lecturers and regretted the reference to the student handbook as "bollocks". The handbook had been revised, he said. But he refused to accede to their complaint about the motion rig camera. This functioned satisfactorily for only a short period, he said. But said staff were confident that this piece of equipment was not crucial for the course.

The students, however, remain dissatisfied. Professor Shacklock's letter did not acknowledge that they had been mis-sold the course, they said. "While this [course] may have somewhat improved, we still signed a contract and paid for a course which was and is below the standard we were led to expect."

The university failed in its duty of care, they said. "The motion rig was played up by the university staff and this led to some students choosing the course over others in the sector."

The University of Lincoln said that it took complaints from its students extremely seriously. In a statement it added: "We last heard from Rebecca Clay on 24 April 2006. We replied to her letter on 2 May 2006, asking for clarification of the redress being sought. We have had no further correspondence from her since that date.

"Once we have heard from Ms Clay, it is the university's intention either to find a mutually satisfactory resolution without delay, or to assist Ms Clay with referring the matter to the independent adjudicator for higher education."