Graduates of London's art colleges have stormed fashion houses and galleries all over the world, says Catherine Nixey

Manolo Blahnik, the man who makes wealthy toes twinkle, is effusive: "I love working at the college. Every minute that I am there is pure joy for me."

Manolo, possibly the only shoemaker famous enough to be known by his first name alone, has been a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art since 2000, and loves his job. "It's thrilling for me to work with the students - it invigorates my mind and my creativity. And it's a privilege to share what I know."

He is rightfully proud of the college's history. Even if you can't tell your backstitch from your blanket stitch you will have heard of many of the college's most famous alumni such as Julian McDonald and the hat designer Philip Treacy.

"Generation after generation, the Royal College has produced a steady flow of amazing designers. The backbone of English talent has studied there," he says.

The Royal College, a post-graduate institution, is one among a Jackson Pollock splattering of art and design universities that cover the south-east of England. And of course they do not offer only fashion. They are probably more famous for art.

Turner nominee Tracey Emin studied at the Maidstone arm of the Kent Institute of Art and Design (KIAD), another highly respected art and design college. KIAD is spread over three campuses in Maidstone, Canterbury and Rochester, each site has its own speciality. Unlike many art colleges, KIAD is not affiliated to a larger body.

Liz Leyland, the head of KIAD's school of media, arts and communication design, sees this as one of its prime advantages. "We are one of the few independent colleges in the UK and we are entirely dedicated to art, design and architecture. Because we're not part of any university, the experience of our students is utterly undiluted. Students here find themselves within a community of like-minded people and I think this makes them much more focused."

This year, the KIAD is one of a number of colleges offering places through Clearing, including BAs in architecture, interior design and photography and MAs in fine art.

Within London, another college to do so is Central Saint Martins. The alma mater of designers such as Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. One of the courses they are offering through Clearing is product design, a three-year BA divided broadly into two main stages. The first stage is more theoretical, involving sketching, modelling and the history of product design. The second stage involves collaborations with industry - and for this course the college has links with, among others, Kodak, the Body Shop and Red or Dead.

Saint Martins is one of five colleges which comprise the formidable London Institute. The others are Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art and the London Colleges of Fashion and Printing.

Back in the Eighties, the long-term viability of those small specialist colleges was in doubt. So the London Institute, an umbrella finance and administrative body, was founded around the individual colleges.

The London Institute says that the mergers have put the colleges on a secure financial footing, preserved the quality of the specialist art schools, and even improved things by allowing a central pool of training and educational resources for tutors and students alike.

Opponents of mergers would disagree. In 2001, the Wimbledon School of Art voted on whether to merge with Chelsea College of Art. Staff rejected the motion by six to one. "We were very worried about being swallowed up and that our courses would be cherry-picked," says visiting lecturer Jennet Thomas. "We have an excellent fine art course - but then London Institute is full of fine art courses. We were worried that ours would just be axed. There was almost a mutiny over this merger."

However it cannot be denied that under the London Institute the colleges are not only surviving but thriving. Founded in 1986, the Institute spreads over 18 sites, has more than 30,000 students and makes £16m a year from its overseas investments alone.

This year the Institute was awarded university status, recognising what Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, has called its "unparalleled international reputation for excellence in the arts, creativity and innovation".

Graduates of all the English colleges have stormed the fashion houses and galleries of the world. England has a verve and daring that the more conservative Paris or New York lacks. As Manolo says: "It's different here. People still respond to new ideas and suggestions." Britain may have once been on the edge of the visual arts scene; these days it is the edge.