Opportunities for working-class pupils to study at Glasgow School of  Art have been reduced because there is less financial support, an influential former course leader has claimed.

Sam Ainsley, who co-founded Glasgow School of Art's prestigious Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programme in 1989 said the course had offered "half a dozen" `bursaries at that time to support students with living costs.

She said this was gradually reduced and claimed it was now "virtually impossible" for young people from lower-income families to secure grants or scholarships.

The artist said international students had always added to the "rich mix" of Glasgow's visual arts community but there was now too much focus on the "huge" income they generate.

GSA has seen student applications across the board increase by 76% since 2017/18 with international student applications increasing by 117% over the period and a 40% increase in international applications so far this cycle.

Ms Ainsley said she came up with the idea to launch a drawing school for young people who didn't get the grades to get into art school with former colleagues Sandy Moffat and David Harding.

"We would do a one-year drawing course where every artist we knew had volunteered to do it for free, every single one," she said.

“We had a backer, we were going to open then the credit crunch happened and the funding fled and that was it. It was such a shame.

“I think the future is independent art schools.

"We have an ex-student Alison Harper, a painting student who runs the Essential School of Painting in London where the fees are a tiny proportion of those in the state system and it's full of people who want to be artists.”

The Herald: Artist Sam Ainsley who co-founded GSA's prestigious MFA programme Artist Sam Ainsley who co-founded GSA's prestigious MFA programme (Image: Gordon Terris/Newsquest)

Ms Ainsley was one of only a few women teaching at Glasgow School of Art when she arrived in the 1980s.

She helped set up the MFA course in 1989 with fellow lecturer John Calcutt and was appointed programme leader in 1991, holding the post until 2005.

She also contributed to tutor David Harding’s influential Environmental Art undergraduate course, whose alumni include Christine Borland and David Shrigley.

The Herald: Sam Ainsley with fellow GSA tutor and artist John ShankieSam Ainsley with fellow GSA tutor and artist John Shankie (Image: John Shankie)

"I just thought it was the most brilliant art school I'd ever been in - and I'd been in many," said the Glasgow-based artist who was born in North Shields and studied painting at Newcastle Polytechnic from 1974 -77.

"I'd travelled the world and been to some of the fantastic schools but none of them came close to the extraordinary atmosphere of the Mackintosh [building] for students.

"Sandy [Moffat] David [Harding] and I do talk about what we call the golden years at GSA because they really did feel special. I guess about mid-1980s to 2005.

"It was extraordinary and what an experience – talk about a rollercoaster but in the best possible sense."

The Herald: David Shrigley OBE

Ms Ainsley said the two fires at the Mack building in 2014 and 2018 and the fact that students can no longer learn in the iconic building had damaged its world-leading reputation.

"[The Mack] was one of the really big draws for a lot of people applying to Glasgow School of Art," said the artist who brought her first major exhibition (Wednesday is Cobalt blue, Friday is Cadmium red) in more than 30 years to Glasgow's Museum of Modern Art (GoMa) this winter. 

"The sense of community isn't there anymore," she added. "And I think it was really, really strong throughout the eighties, nineties and noughties.

“So when I look at some of the ex-students who are now teaching there and how hard pressed they are in terms of workload I think its no wonder that the sense of community is fading.

The Herald:

“It’s hard to sustain that when you are working way beyond your 35 hours a week."

The 74-year-old former course leader said she was concerned that opportunities for poorer students to study at GSA had been reduced.

"When we started the MFA the school had half a dozen grants for Scottish kids," she said.

"It went down to one in the end, because of the plethora of new courses that GSA determinedly wanted to introduce, some of which failed.

"It's now nearly impossible for a working-class kid from the West of Scotland to get into Glasgow School of Art with financial support," she said.


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“You’ve got living costs, you’ve got materials, you’ve got travel. Unless there is proper, proper funding it’s going to be hellishly difficult to do.

"So much focus is on international students paying huge fees.

The Herald:

"I had many, many international students on my MFA programme who were part of the rich mix that made the visual art community in Glasgow so special.

"But when it disadvantages local, Scottish kids, I'm pretty angry about that.

“I couldn’t have gone to art school without a fully funded place."

A spokesman for GSA said it was one of only a couple of Scottish universities which has consistently met the Scottish Government's commitment to 20% of UG home-domiciled students from the lowest 20% of Scottish postcodes (SIMD20).

He added: "GSA is committed to ensuring access to students across all we do whether it is through our Open Studio, pre-degree, undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral study.

"Funding scholarships through our own resources and through philanthropic support is incredibly important working with a range of donors who recognise the transformational impact of a create education and the importance of ensuring finance is not a barrier to any student wishing to study with us."