Who are the future directors of Tate Modern? The Royal College of Art's MA in curating contemporary art is leading a wave of courses for potential candidates. Tim Walker reports

sked in 2004 to predict who would be the director of Tate Modern in 15 years' time, the esteemed art critic Brian Sewell suggested that Sir Nicholas Serota's shoes would by then be filled by a graduate of the Royal College of Art's Masters in Curating Contemporary Art. Which, since ex-students of the course already fill many enviable gallery posts in London and elsewhere, now seems like a safe bet.

Ever the critical thorn in the side of such institutions, Sewell went on to say that "anybody with half an ounce of sense would clear out the Tate Modern building and do something sensible with it". But as any curator (not least Serota himself) knows, you can't please all of the people all of the time.

The RCA's two-year MA was set up in 1992, the first such course in the country, combining intellectual and theoretical discipline with vocational training. "We understand contemporary art as art post-1960," explains Professor Mark Nash, who took over as the new head of department in February. "It means that the students are working with living artists, and those artists can come and discuss their work and its presentation with the students.

"We don't teach the museum conservation side of curating, where you could be dealing with paintings or 18th-century silverware. The course focuses on communication, on creating a discursive field around contemporary art, rather than just looking after paintings."

The course's two-year structure splits logically into one year's theory and one year's curatorial practice, and while the intensive full-time timetable doesn't allow students much leeway to take on part-time work, the course's UK postgraduates are generously funded by bursaries, and European students can have their tuition fees subsidised. The RCA enjoys close links with major galleries, including Tate Modern, and one of the students' projects involves working on a display there.

Students have developed a broad range of public projects beyond the conventional bounds of the art gallery, such as with Foster's architectural firm, on hypothetical commissions for the new Jubilee Line stations in London. They also have the benefit of a three-month financed internship to kick-start their careers after graduation.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds, though the majority are undergraduate fine artists or art historians, and the application process demands some curatorial experience.

Twenty-nine-year-old Emma Ridgway studied fine art and art history at Goldsmiths College, London University, and worked as an artist before becoming involved in curating an online commercial gallery, britart .com, for other emerging artists. "After that I worked on a series of exhibitions for young, London-based artists who were in my peer group," Ridgway explains. "I applied to the RCA because I enjoyed working with artists, but I wanted to take what I was doing to a more professional level."

The annual exhibition curated by the graduating students has become a staple of the London art calendar, and is developed collaboratively by the students - 13 of them this year. "Discussions over the artists and the themes we were all interested in took a long time, because there was no hierarchy," says Ridgway, "so the big decisions were hard to come to. But we all knew we wanted to work closely with the artists."

The 2006 exhibition Again for Tomorrow was a mixture of original and existing works by an international array of artists, many from South America and south-eastern Europe, the two regions that the students visited on research trips earlier in the year.

Among the artists involved in the graduate exhibition was Gorka Eizagirre, a Basque artist who designs exhibition spaces, Ridgway explains. "We asked him to design our seminar area, and he turned it into a space like a Basque village court."

The strength of the course's international outlook is thanks in part to Arts Council funding, which allows the students to make gallery visits in the UK, Europe and further afield. "The trips teach you how to conduct research and make contacts," says Ridgway, "and they also give you a real feel for the politics and culture of the countries."

Professor Nash says, "We want our students to see art in an international context. Art has different cultural functions in different countries, and the curator's role is different in, say, the ex-Soviet Union or in Africa."

In their future posts, the RCA graduates will have the support of press officers and education departments, but, says Emma Mahony, who graduated from the MA in 2000, "for the graduate show the students learn to do everything: the catalogue, the budget, the marketing, the education programme and so on."

Since 2001, Mahony has been an exhibition curator at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. It's hard to argue with the course's employment record, which is close to 100 per cent. "Before taking the Masters, I came from Ireland with a BA in Fine Art, and it would have been nearly impossible for me to break into the London art world without the excellent brand value that the RCA gives you," says Mahony.

There are other postgraduate curating courses in the offing. Sunderland University offers an MA in curating with a focus on regionalism that no doubt reflects the North East's remarkable cultural resurgence. Liverpool John Moore's, which enjoys healthy relations with Tate Liverpool and other regional artistic institutions, has a two-year-old MRes in curatorial practice, and an MA in curating new media art in the pipeline for September 2007. Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Metropolitan universities are both developing new postgraduate degrees in curating that will be open for business from September 2006. "The art world has grown enormously, and I'm amazed by the number of jobs and opportunities emerging for people with this training," says Dr Andrew Renton, director of the curating course at Goldsmiths.

From September, Goldsmiths' one-year MA becomes a two-year MSA in curating. "Curating as the discipline we recognise now has only been around for 30 years or so," explains Renton. "In the past a curator would have been attached to a single institution, with a narrow expertise. Today's young curators function very like today's young artists, moving between galleries and institutions, working on a range of projects."

The Goldsmiths curating course is based in the university's renowned fine art department, which means curators mingle with their artist contemporaries. While the curating students at Goldsmiths do have a graduation exhibition, more emphasis is placed on the two individual curating projects that each student develops during the course, liaising with artists and venues in the process. "We decided that these individual projects were more valuable than a single group exhibition," says Renton.

Kingston University and the Design Museum this year celebrated the fifth birthday of their MA in curating contemporary design, whose theory and practice elements are split between the university and the Museum, near Tower Bridge. "We don't see curating as a museum activity," says Professor Catherine McDermott, one of the course directors. "We're interested in developing a group who can respond to whatever the creative industries require, be that in design practice, retail, government policy or public space. Our graduates could end up curating for anyone from the Science Museum, to Selfridges." Recently, the current crop of students under McDermott's tutelage developed an exhibition with Demos, on the think tank's pet theme of "everyday democracy". Past students of the course are now curating at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and working for design agencies.

Movers and shakers of the art world - where the RCA graduates are today

Members of the Royal College of Art's 2005 graduating class have already organised an exhibition in Afghanistan, worked on Channel 4's The Big Art Show and on the current Tate Triennial.

Clarrie Wallis and Victoria Walsh (both of whom graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1994), are now curators at Tate Britain, London.

Andrea Tarsia (graduated 1995) is head of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Irene Bradbury (graduated 1997) is museum and artists' liaison for the White Cube, London

Tamsin Dillon (graduated 1997) is curator of 'Platform For Art' for Transport for London

Hannah Redler (graduated 1997) is head of the arts programme at the Science Museum, London

Ariella Yedgar (graduated 1998) is exhibitions organiser at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

Kitty Scott (graduated 1995) is curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Joselina Cruz (graduated 1999) is an assistant curator at the Singapore Art Museum

Michael Wilson (graduated 1999) is an associate editor of Artforum magazine in New York (left)

Marianne Lanavere (graduated 2002) is director of La Galerie, Noisy, Paris

November Paynter (graduated 2002) is a curator at Platform Garanti, Istanbul

Tatiana Cuevas (graduated 2003) is an assistant curator at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City