What’s In A Photography Degree?

I often hear it said (mostly in photography forums, but occasionally to my face) that photography degrees are not worth the money and you would be better to either just buy some gear and practice, or do a business degree.

Now I’ll confess up front that I didn’t do a Photography BA. I couldn’t find one that included the things I wanted to study and so a History of Art BA was a better match for me (I am more interested in history and theory). I was fortunate to be able to study some different genres and theories of photography under various tutors including an expert in modernism. I graduated top of my class and went on to complete a Masters by Research in History of Art (which comprised a thirty thousand word research paper and a thesis defence with two subject experts) and I am currently waiting to start my PhD in History of Art.

One of my particular research interests is the kinds of people that go on art related degrees and why they choose to complete them. I have made it my business to know what’s going on in the photography degree world, and I get out and about talking to photography lecturers and those who write and plan degree courses whenever I can.

That said, lets talk photography degrees and their benefits. It’s quite a long post, I promise it’s worth reading if you’re interested in the subject.

That £50k Would Be Better Spent On Gear And Hiring Tutors

This is an argument I often hear. And I kind of see their point. But it demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of how the student loan system works.

You Don’t Get The Money As Cash

When you sign up to be a student you apply for a student loan. This loan gives you two things: enough to cover your fees (just over £9k a year) and then what is called a maintenance loan. The maintenance loan is designed to pay for your living expenses, and has a fixed amount that everyone gets plus a means-tested amount that is variable depending on your parents income. I got the full amount because I was a mature student which was about £7.5k a year. I then got an extra £2k a year bursary from my university because I was a mature student.

The maintenance loan is designed to pay for your basic living expenses in conjunction with help from your parents if they’re higher earners, and a part time job from yourself. I worked as a writer and photographer and my maintenance loan, bursary, and hard work in my own business meant that I could afford to pay to rent my own one bedroom flat while only working about eight hours a week.

You’re not given the loan as just a cash lump sum to do what you want with. The fees loan is paid directly to the university once they’ve confirmed you’ve turned up on the first day of your degree (and they reconfirm each year). Your maintenance loan is paid to your bank account in instalments throughout the year.

The important thing is the way you pay it back. You can look up the exact percentages yourself, but when I signed my loan agreement it worked out roughly like this.

  • Once you are earning over £21k a year you start to pay it back.
  • You pay it back at a rate of roughly £10 per month per £1k you earn annually over £21k.
  • That means that if you are in a job paying you £20k a year, you pay nothing back of your student loan. If you are in a job paying £25k a year, you pay about £40 a month, or £500 a year.
  • After thirty years the loan is completely written off. Even if you have never paid a penny towards it.

I think of student loads as a graduate tax.

They do not act as credit in the same way that normal loans do. They’re not taken into account in the same way as mortgage or credit card debt is when it comes to financial decisions.

So if you sat in a job with a salary of £25k a year and you put that £40 in a pot each month, it would take you about 100 years to save that £50k for you to invest in your photographic education. I think I’d rather take the loan up front and use the degree system to invest in my future while paying back a graduate tax. £40 a month buys you about an hour in a studio, but no tuition.

You ARE Spending The Money On Gear And Tutors

And a whole lot more besides!

The maintenance loan is basically paying most of your living expenses. Yes you’re going to eat a fair amount of ramen and cheap meal deals, and you might want to put another jumper on rather than turning the heating up, but the maintenance loan does go quite far if you budget well.

Importantly what it means is that you’re going to dedicate 40 hours per week to learning about photography. You try doing that week in and week out alongside your regular 40 hour a week job. I’ll tell you – I’ve worked 80 hour weeks in the past and it’s deeply unpleasant and you can’t do it for very long at all. Full time degrees are 40 hour weeks. That is the time the university expects you to dedicate to your course – hence why you are given cash for living expenses.

But what are you getting in return for your degree fees? How does it stack up compared to just hiring some good photographers to teach you and buying all the gear?

Well, the photography degrees that I looked at when choosing where/what to study, and the tutors I’ve talked to since in a more professional capacity, have indicated that some, all, or more of this list is on offer (depending on the course and institution):

Contact Time

I had about 12 hours a week contact time on my degree (which was two days), but photography degrees are usually a little higher. This will usually be a combination of lectures, seminars, practicals, and tutorials. This contact time will be with experts in their field, a combination of academics and experienced working photographers, as well as the occasional guest lecturer from other subjects. Most photography academics are also photographers/artists with their own practice too.

A Library and Subject Librarians

Gotta go somewhere to research and write those essays. Of course you don’t just get a library of photography books, you get access to the books required by every subject across the entire university educational program. So if you suddenly develop an interest in micro-photography, for example, you also have the science library to delve into for research as well as the photography library… Subject librarians are worth their weight in gold too. They are specialist librarians who will basically know everything about the books and journals available in their field. If you go to them and say “I read a journal article about a decade ago which said something about a man and a dog…” then they’ll probably be able to find that article for you. If not they’ll probably know 72 other related books and articles that would be helpful to your research.

Equipment Library

Photography degree students tend to have access to equipment libraries that students can borrow gear from in the same way that they’d borrow books from a library. When I looked around some courses they had everything in their stores from battered old 1960s 35mm film cameras to top of the range digital medium format cameras less than a year old (you could borrow a £40k camera on one of the courses I went to see). If you want a weird and wonderful lens for experimentation they’ll probably be able to get their hands on it. Students on degree courses are generally expected to own their own basic kit, but they’ll have access to pretty much anything they could want, including accessories like lighting and grip.

How much does it cost? Nothing. It’s included in the course fees.

Studios

All of the photography degrees I looked at had at least two studios shared by the students of the photography degree courses. They were seriously good, well-equipped studios too. With top of the range professional equipment. And technicians on hand to help you learn how to use them and get the results you want.

Cost? Nothing. Included in your fees.

Darkrooms

All the courses I went to see had multiple fully-equipped (and expansive) traditional and digital darkrooms. With technicians on hand to help you get the best from them. They all run top-end software – no open source software here. Everything was full Adobe Suite and other industry-standard software like Capture One.

(In addition you can buy the entire Creative Suite from Adobe for your personal laptop for about £20 a month if you’re a student).

Networking

Of course one of the biggest benefits to studying at university rather than via distance learning or one to one is the networking opportunities that this situation affords you. I have had quite a few opportunities arise simply via the people I met on my degree courses.

Plus it’s a support network. Every student that I was on my undergrad course with had a different specialism. I know that if I want to know more about something that isn’t quite my field I can hit up one of my friends and ask them about their research as a starting point. It’s like having your own network of specialist private tutors available on your Facebook at all times, and you generally owe them nothing more than a beer next time you see them!

The Time to be Creative

Three years, full time, just focussing on developing your own creativity and style. I’m fairly sure most photographers doing a day-job would kill for that opportunity. That is the kind of opportunity that only really comes along by being a student, being retired, or winning the lottery. It cannot be underestimated the amount of personal creative development that a student can do in three years (completely aside from technical and academic development). Immersing yourself in your subject for three years allows you to grasp it in a way that you will really struggle to do any other way.

How Does The Price Compare?

I recently paid for a course for professional development in an industry unrelated to photography. It cost me £700 for a weeks tuition that included a tutor, specialist facilities, and the course had both theory and practical aspects. So I think it’s a reasonable comparison.

Lets discount the maintenance loan which pays for our living expenses, so that gives us about £30k to directly compare. 30k divided into 700 is about 42.

So if I had £30k in my pocket I could either pay for three years tuition for a degree course, or 14 weeks a year tuition over three years. The numbers are comparable. You’d probably learn a similar amount (assuming you could find that many £700/week photography courses). But it’s the extras on top of the pure tuition that make a degree so much more. And it’s also the fact that you’re doing this for three years constantly, not one week a month. (Also you’d have to have a pretty mega job to be working enough to support that kind of educational habit).

And Then There’s The Research Skills…

The elephant in the room when we talk about humanities degrees is the research skills you get taught. If you’ve not done a degree it can be easy to not realise that these skills are taught from the very first week when you start learning how to use library resources properly.

The research skills I was taught on my undergraduate degree gave me a platform that I can apply to anything else in my life. It taught me a methodical way of working through problems, and then finding, storing, and analysing information.

This is more valuable, in my mind, than almost anything else you get taught on a degree course. For me it’s been an essential skill in my own business and for other jobs that I’ve done along the way. It simply cannot be underestimated.

It’s basically project management. And you’re going to have an awful lot of projects in your photographic journey.