Arts University to offer star masterclasses

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The Independent Online

It sounds like an international Who's Who of the celebrity world: Stella McCartney, Alan Rickman, Alexander McQueen, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth. In fact it is a small snapshot of the alumni of five media and art colleges that have merged to form the new University of the Arts, London, which will be officially opened next Tuesday.

It will be the first UK university devoted to the arts; a move that is expected to make it easier for it to market itself on the world stage. As a first step, the university is inviting its alumni to give master-classes to the students of today.

According to Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the new university and a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, the change of name has rung bells and impressed the 2,000 students of the five colleges as well as their former students.

"They are saying, 'Can we come back and give master-classes for the colleges?' and 'Can we come back and teach a course?'" he said. Those who have already agreed to do so include the performance artists Gilbert and George; Quentin Blake, who provided the illustrations for Roald Dahl's books; John Bird, founder of The Big Issue ; and Matthew Collings, the TV arts presenter.

The actors Simon Callow and Kwame Kwei-Armah have also agreed to deliver welcoming addresses to students at Tuesday's opening ceremony.

For Sir Michael, the official opening is the climax of a campaign to secure centre stage for the creative industries. "We always hear how important science and technology are for British industry and we hear little about art and design; but they are central to the British economy," he said.

"I think having a university for the arts makes a statement about how important the creative industries are for the UK. It is growing in importance; second only behind financial services for securing revenue for the UK. But people still talk about it as if it is a bit flaky and not something to invest in."

Figures compiled by the university show that Britain's creative industries employ 1.95 million people and bring in £77bn a year.

Sir Michael acknowledges that the main benefit of the union will be to give the university's sales people a brand name they can market internationally. "They are absolutely delighted," he said.

Before this week's opening, the five colleges were known as the London Institute. They are Camberwell College of Arts; Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design; Chelsea College of Art and Design; London College of Communication and London College of Fashion. "Some people thought it was an old people's home rather than a world-class higher education institution," said Sir Michael.

In the next few months the university will consider whether to follow in the footsteps of Nottingham University and open campuses abroad. As revealed by The Independent last month, Nottingham has just opened one in China. Links are already being developed with overseas institutions.

"It will be an important decision that we will have to make over the next few months; whether we want to be a solely London based institution or open up one or two campuses elsewhere," Sir Michael said. "It would be sensible if London becomes politically less attractive or the cost of living here is considered too expensive."

The colleges have attracted a growing number of international students in the past few years. Their numbers have been increasing by about 10 per cent a year and now stand at about 25 per cent of the total intake of 15,000. Sir Michael said he expected that figure to continue to rise.

Another priority for the new university will be to strengthen its provision of courses in the performing arts. Sir Michael said he expected to reach agreement with "a major dance institution" to bring it into the new university soon, one of the areas that it does not cover at present.