This morning I listened to an hour long discussion on this question published by the guys over at FStoppers. It was an interesting discussion which touched on so many points and I decided to write down my thoughts.
Back in 2006, educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson gave a Ted Talk which challenges the way we teach our children and how school systems worldwide educate the creativity out of us because they are based on a system devised during the Industrial Revolution when subjects such as maths, science and languages are given more value than drama, music or art. What this means is that young people will often follow a path which does not fulfill their passion or give them real job satisfaction. So those who do follow their heart and decide to go to university to study photography, are they doing the right thing?
Is university the right plce to study?
About a year ago I spoke to the CEO of the IED (Istituto Europeo di Design / European Design Institute) and one of the things he mentioned was that too many school leavers are enrolling on traditional university (law, medicine, engineering) and this is creating a void in jobs related to design. At the moment 99% of IED graduates find a job immediately.
Over the last few years visual art in the form of photography and particularly video has become so widespread and important for any business. Anyone who goes for a job in this sector will have to compete with others and you need a CV which is better than the next. Furthermore, there are now many universities offering a wider variety of courses.
One of the comments made in the FStoppers discussion is the incompetence of those graduating from Art School because the university system which does not prepare students for the real world, through inadequate course content and teachers who can't do. I think one point they don't consider is who the university courses are for. Are they for people who want to work for themselves, which is what they focus on, or are they for people who are going to work for someone else. In which case your CV needs to right.
Something that Ken Robinson says as well is how there is an over-inflation of qualifications required in modern society. In the past where an apprenticeship was required you now need a degree, where you needed a degree you now need a masters degree and so on.
The cost of a photography degree
Depending on where you are in the world, university costs more or less. Unless you are lucky enough to come from a family which can afford the fees, you will build up debts. Assuming that you are going to go into business for yourself, do you really need to owe so much money? And more importantly, will you be able to pay it back?
There are alternatives such as evening classes and online courses, provided by people who work in the industry, which teach you all the fundamental skills. Beyond learning photography you can do business management and accounting courses. All of this will set you up to run your own business, hopefully successfully and at a fraction of the cost of doing a photography degree.
Most of the photographers I have come into contact with do not have a photography degree. However, all of them have a passion for the art and have come to where they are via one route or another. As an educator and the parent of a teenager, it goes against the grain to say you don't need to get a degree. Although I believe that in this particular case there are cheaper and better alternatives.