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However, with the support of the RICS, the department is very optimistic that the unique degree will return in October 2006 with a new syllabus tailored to the 21st century market.

The decision to suspend admissions to the course – and thus cast doubt upon the main academic route for entry into the auction profession – was made by the Institute’s faculty management. They felt the profile of the current course did not fit with the faculty’s strategic plan. They argue that the curriculum needs to be developed to make the course more integrated with the rest of the faculty while protecting the core values of the degree.

The six members of staff who teach the course will continue to teach current students (some are on a four-year course), but the absence of first year students – who require a high level of hands-on teaching – will free up time for staff to rewrite the course.

Although admissions are only to be suspended for one year, the Institute is telling students that the suspension will last for two. Course leader Dr Scott Anderson says this is because of next year’s introduction of a fees structure under which students will be asked to pay directly towards the cost of higher education. To allow students to sign up for free now and then defer their course until after the new fees were in place would cause problems for the Institute. As a result, few universities are allowing students to apply for October 2005 and then defer for a year.

In practice Dr Anderson hopes to have a new syllabus in place for the autumn of 2006. Quite how the rewritten course will look will be subject to the approval of the new dean of faculty. However, the course leader envisages a programme of study more relevant to today’s marketplace, with greater focus upon information technology and more emphasis on disciplines such as Oriental works of art.

He would also like the course to be more appealing. Student numbers that averaged around 80 when the degree started in 1993 now number 65-70 a year, with a roughly 50-50 split between those who study at the Institute and those who study long distance.

Students may also be able to tailor a degree, completing core subjects but choosing options in subjects to suit their career aspirations. The idea of a series of different pathways through the course, currently largely concerned with valuation and auctioneering, aims to make it relevant to other areas of the fine arts business such as fair organisation, insurance and dealing. A new focus upon art and antiques dealing could, says Dr Anderson, be something the major dealing associations might wish to endorse or accredit. A new name for the degree is likely if such changes are implemented.

Higher entry requirements

The issue of accreditation is certainly one Dr Anderson hopes to address with a new course. Despite being more popular, the new degree would not be watered down, he argues. In fact, he envisages something intellectually more rigorous, with higher entry requirements in keeping with the Institute’s new university status.

The acceptance of students with A-level results below the criteria expected by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors was the stumbling block that in 2003 led the RICS to announce they would cease accrediting the degree in 2008. Although then facing an uncertain future, the degree has since been endorsed by the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers (SOFAA) as an approved entry route to professional qualification within the Society. The RICS have also been working towards renewing their accreditation.

Nicholas Somers, chairman of the arts and antiques faculty at the RICS and very much part of that olive branch process, was dismayed to hear that Southampton Institute had suspended admissions at a time when, he said “[RICS] membership is suffering because of the absence of educational opportunities”. The South-ampton course, he said, was the primary source of new members into the auction profession. However, he added the RICS “would do everything in their power to support and promote a new course once the commitment is received from Southampton that it is going ahead”.

Dr Anderson told ATG that the approval of SOFAA and the RICS was crucial to the future of the course and he hoped they would have “a much bigger input” in the formation of a new syllabus.

The course, with its study collection of more than 2000 pieces, is unique in Britain and attracts an unusually high level of overseas students. Until last year De Montfort University in Leicester offered a full- or part-time degree in Fine Art and Antiques Valuation, but the course folded following low levels of interest.