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The degree course is considered to be crucial to the future of the UK industry because it acts as the main conduit and qualifier for young people wishing to enter the antiques business, but a number of adverse factors largely beyond the Institute’s control are putting the long-term future of the course at risk, leading members of the industry believe.

The first problem has been money, with the Institute losing £2.5m in government funding since 2001, leaving it no choice but to cut the course budget and seek redundancies among teaching staff.

The head of department, Matthew Denney, resigned last week, joining four other lecturers and a curator who have sought voluntary redundancy or been sacked in the past year.

Despite these sacrifices, however, the Institute reaffirmed its confidence in the academic standards of the course by agreeing its status for another six years. But course recognition is the second problem.

While the fine arts faculty of the RICS is prepared to continue recognising the course based on existing criteria, the RICS’s main education board is not, and has insisted on the introduction of a points system based on A Level results for accepting students. “We still have accreditation until 2008 under the original terms of our agreement with RICS, but the withdrawal of support could ultimately pose a threat to the existence of the course,” said the associate dean of Southampton, Tim Gaskin. The Institute is asking the RICS to reconsider its position and is currently talking to other bodies about future sponsorship.

The RICS education board ruling was opposed by members of the fine arts faculty, because they believe that vocational, rather than academic standards, were more important to the industry. “The vote was extremely close and, quite frankly, the faculty does not regard the rule as helpful,” said one member.

Unhelpful might seem an understatement with the yearly intake of undergraduates on the Fine Arts Valuation course falling by 60 per cent since 1998, when about 80 students enrolled.

The Institute has been trying to reverse this decline by introducing part-time and distance learning as well as broadening course options with a new degree in European Art Heritage.

The reasons for the decline in student numbers are complex, manifold, and will be difficult to reverse, even if the RICS does change its policy.

The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 must carry much of the blame, because the fine arts valuation course has a high proportion of mature students who come to the course from low paying jobs like junior auction cataloguers and antique shop assistants. Another factor is the relevance of the course itself. There is a strong belief that the course has become too broad based and theoretical since becoming a BA honours degree in the 1990s and that students are graduating without the vocational skills required by auction houses and antiques dealers.

“The problem for employers is that the course is not relevant any more,” said a leading industry figure. But with the three main employers, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, having shed 400 jobs in the past the year, the prospect of insecure employment on low wages is probably the ultimate deterrent to young people wanting to train for a career in the art market.