‘Let down and sold out’: Edinburgh College of Art prioritised book festival hire over studio access, say students

Students from Edinburgh College of Art claim they have been let down, lied to and “sold out” after the college hired out spaces to Edinburgh International Book Festival while failing to restore the access that postgraduates had to studios and workshops before Covid-19. 

A group of postgraduate and masters students at the college contacted The Ferret to raise concerns and claim they had been “short-changed” on courses that promised access to “an exceptional range of studios”, adding this was not the case. 

Courses run by Edinburgh College of Art, which is part of Edinburgh University, can cost as much as £11,000 in fees for home students and £24,000 for international ones. 

Students, unhappy at alternative studio space offered and angry about the lack of weekend and out-of-hours access, said the school had sold students out by prioritising new partnerships over their existing commitments to paying students. 

Edinburgh festival hire

However the college said exhibition space provided for the postgraduate shows in the north east building was regularly used and “should not be perceived as a second rate space”. It claimed it had not been paid by Edinburgh International Book Festival for use of the space.

Students said access to purpose built art studios and workshop spaces with sculpture and printmaking facilities, has been severely curtailed due to Covid-19 restrictions, making it difficult to use materials or work at scale. 

They claim that while most Edinburgh University facilities began to reopen in June – allowing their postgraduate contemporaries in sciences and humanities to access labs and libraries – Edinburgh College of Art failed to take the same steps.

Instead, art students claim, they were moved at short notice out of the studios where they expected to exhibit for the postgraduate show, and offered alternative spaces which some said did not accommodate the larger works they had started making. 

Meanwhile the main space was hired by Edinburgh International Book Festival throughout  August and used for events and to record podcasts, with other activities also taking place in the building during July. 

This academic year has had a massively negative impact on my dreams of being at art school and my mental health. The pandemic and poor handling of the situation from ECA has been very depressing and disruptive.

Jack Waygood, postgraduate student

The Book Festival, which closed on Tuesday 31 August, reported it had sold 56,000 in person and online tickets, with a total footfall of 25,000 being recorded at its new home at Edinburgh College of Art.

Angry students said restrictions, which meant they had no access outwith the hours of 9-5pm – made it difficult to complete final work. When they raised concerns they were told these were due to Covid-19. 

But were shocked to find these restrictions did not apply to the Book Festival during its residence in the building. 

The Ferret was shown screenshots of emails which confirm students’ concerns were raised repeatedly with the art school management in recent weeks. 

One student called Igor Slepov told The Ferret: “We have been raising these concerns since June. Our colleagues in other parts of Edinburgh University have been allowed to access labs until midnight, the main library is open. 

“But at Edinburgh College of Art we have to leave the building by 5pm and can’t get access at weekends. Management told us this was due to Covid-19 but if so how come not only other university students have greater levels of access, but external events are also allowed to take place out of hours?”

Hours have been restricted but the Book Festival gets the best spaces and suddenly out of hours access is no longer an issue. Throughout the summer I’ve run into obstacles that have made me feel as a student like a nuisance in the grand scheme of things.

Edinburgh College of Art student

Edinburgh University’s main library is currently open from 8.30am until 11.59pm every day of the week.

The situation, students claimed, was made worse by the way their concerns were dealt with. They claim there was a lack of understanding about the importance of studio spaces where large scale work can be made and materials stored.

“Art students are not like law students who can just go to another library,” continued Slepov. “We make our work in situ, we need drying time for sculptors and painters, we need to explore colour and scale and materials. 

“This is the reason we chose the art school. Instead we are at home, spray painting in our bedrooms or else making other kinds of work because this is not possible.

“The decision not to allow us in feels so irrational. The festival has some of these spaces to make podcasts, so it’s been used as an elevated office. As clients I can understand why they would want this space but as paying students of ECA we are also clients. We have been sold out.”

Another Master of Fine Art student who struggled to finish her final piece of work due to restrictions on specialised workshop time: “We’ve all lost hours and days of studio and workshop time.

“Hours have been restricted but the Book Festival gets the best spaces and suddenly out of hours access is no longer an issue. Throughout the summer I’ve run into obstacles that have made me feel as a student like a nuisance in the grand scheme of things.” 

Another postgraduate student called Jack Waygood said: “This academic year has had a massively negative impact on my dreams of being at art school and my mental health. The pandemic and poor handling of the situation from ECA has been very depressing and disruptive.

“Edinburgh College of Art sold its students down the river for a book festival, we have been continuously lied to and fleeced for our tuition fees throughout the year. This is the final insult to injury. Huge changes need to happen in order to save that Art school – they need to look outside of their narrow corporate mindset.”

‘A challenging year’

However an University of Edinburgh spokesperson, said it had been an “incredibly challenging year for everyone involved in higher education”. 

“Changes to learning and teaching spaces, particularly those that include workshops and practical application, have been necessary in order to comply with public health guidance and policy from the Scottish Government,” they added. 

“This has unfortunately had an impact on occupancies in ECA learning and teaching spaces and practises. ECA is aware of the frustrations this has caused and is working to deliver increased face-to-face learning and teaching time throughout the new academic year.”

The Book Festival, they said, was a “new and important partnership for the university” which had “afforded opportunities to bring many more people into contact with MA Graduate Shows”. 

“The university has not received any income from the Book Festival for the use of the space,” they added. “The University will not be refunding tuition fees. They cover many aspects of University life, and our investments in our facilities and services have increased rather than decreased in response to the pandemic.”

A spokeswoman for the Edinburgh International Book Festival said it was a matter for the art college and did not wish to comment. 

Photo Credit: iStock/LightFieldStudios

This story has been updated to correctly title Edinburgh College of Art. The student, who previously asked to remain anonymous also requested that his name be added.

  1. As this year’s graduate all I can say is that this closely reflects some of what many of my course-mates had to go through this year. Although tutors have tried to help us as much as they could the invisible hand was always there to make sure that we are kept an arms-length away from the facilities that we came to use at the ECA. Such a pity to see people dismayed and going back to work at home instead of the very place they came to work in. Shame that these facilities for the most party were standing empty the whole summer!

  2. During the summer of 2021, being a student at ECA was the equivalent of being an unwelcome guest chez Faulty Towers. Whilst the college rolled out the red carpet for the BF and a veritable swarm of estates staff was made available to prep the main building, students were not offered similar support. I found out which space I was going to be in at fairly late notice which creates its own headache. The lights in K02 didn’t work. I *think* my departmental technician out in a request for the lights to be fixed &, you guessed it, they were not. I guess I was lucky sundown was almost aligned with 8.30pm close of show. The work was still just about visible in the gloaming. This is just one of the many problems I experienced over the course of the summer. I personally lost ( without factoring in restricted hours) at least a week’s worth of workshop access due to maintenance/site power out etc. From my perspective, I would say ECA’s postgraduate students access/space needs were conveniently overlooked & in some cases ignored.

  3. I am a Chinese student that paid £22,000 and all I got was a degree and my name on a master’s show wall.

    I also spent over £25,000 including flights and living expenses to come here to ‘study’. Although they promise hybrid-learning they only gave us online teaching.

    We are working with other Chinese students and a law firm on a “no win, no fee” basis to recover what we paid. The terms and guarantees in the school contract are very different from what we actually received. We see that Glasgow School of Art students are doing it too from the Dezeen article last week.

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