Master of arts takes college global with issues of the age

Paul Thompson wants the RCA brought into the 21st century.

By Lucy Hodges
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:50

Chris Ofili studied there, as did David Hockney, Tracey Emin, Ian Drury and Len Deighton. They all took postgraduate courses at the Royal College of Art, the world's only wholly postgraduate university of art and design, which is suddenly making news because of its new boss.

Paul Thompson is ruffling the feathers of academics with proposals to make the place global by recruiting more overseas students, bringing in more money, putting on new courses and making the place more ambitious. Some of the staff are worried.

"At the moment we're a UK institution that takes overseas students and I'd like to turn it into an international centre rather than a British art school," he says in his first interview with a national newspaper. "That doesn't mean simply that I want more overseas students but I want people to think differently about design and fine art practice. I don't want them just to think about Europe, about Hoxton and the White Cube Gallery but to think more broadly about pressing social issues like resource management and the fact that more people are over 65 than under 16 in the UK now."

Academics at the Royal College have been used to a relatively cosy existence under Sir Christopher Frayling who was also chairman of the Arts Council. He had a cost-cutting exercise in his final year, which meant staff redundancies, but he didn't roam around looking for new sources of income or thinking up new courses.

Thompson has come in from a job running the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York and thinks like a man who has had his mind broadened by eight years in the New World. "The gossip is that he's been brought in to fund-raise and align us with the American system of a college that brings in money," says one staff member. "His remit is to modernise us."

Thompson does not deny that he wants more overseas students and that the income stream would come in handy. The RCA has only 13 per cent overseas students at present out of a total of 800, and it looks as though it may be missing a trick. It plans to increase that number to 17 per cent this year.

When you think that overseas students are charged £25,000 a year at the college, and that an MA lasts two years, this increase should bring in more than £150,000 annually. Money is a consideration, says Thompson, particularly when the college has had its budget cut by 2.9 per cent by the Higher Education Funding Council.

The next decade will be very different, he says. "It won't be the growth years that we have experienced in the Noughties. Everybody in higher education and the public sector are recognising that it will be a period of constraint and austerity and we need to diversify our income streams so that we can prepare for those cuts in government funding."

The new rector has been putting his stamp on appointments too, notably with the decision to hire Neville Brody as head of the department of communication art and design, which has made some staff anxious. A successful graphic designer in the 1980s through his designs for The Face and Arena magazines, and more recently with his design for The Times as a tabloid, Brody has little experience of higher education or teaching.

"They've employed someone on two-and-a-half days a week with no educational experience to run the department," says a member of staff. "It's a very unprogressive appointment. The college is going for the American model of the star appointment that looks good on paper but is not going to do anything for the way students are educated."

Thompson counters that Brody will be fantastic. "It doesn't worry me in the slightest that he isn't well versed in academe because there are plenty of people in that department who are, so there are solid hands on the tiller," he says. "We want to ensure that we have dynamic, successful and distinguished practitioners."

The new rector has thrown himself into the college's internal operations. He sits on endless committees and attends internal meetings because he is interested in the RCA's academic offerings. And he is amazed that the college has set up no new MA since 1988. "When you think of all the things that have happened since then – we have had the advent of the internet, the arrival of global warming, the growth of new economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China – the world has changed so fundamentally, yet the Royal College has no new Masters degrees."

So, Thompson is working on an academic masterplan to outline new MA courses. He wants more integration between design and art and says that designers work today in teams with sociologists, anthropologists, economists, architects and urban planners. Students need to learn to work this way, he says.

"I want to make sure that the courses reflect pressing global concerns, whether it's water, resource management, climate change ageing populations or shifting demographics."

He would like to see new departments, perhaps a transport design department and a service design department, not to mention a department of the moving image – and he wants to build up research.

He hopes the RCA will lay on an MA in health care, design and ageing, as well as take research PhD students in this area. There are plans for a Masters in interior design and for another in critical writing. These new Masters students will be housed in accommodation released by the new building for fine art in Battersea which comes fully on stream in 2014. Until now the lack of space has acted as a constraint on academic vision. Thompson is determined that should change.

The royal college of art - in a nutshell

Age: 170

Address: Kensington Gore, opposite the Albert Memorial, one of the smartest parts of London; and Battersea, which is more funky.

Vital statistics: the world's only wholly postgraduate university of art and design. It gave birth to the modern school of British sculpture in the 1920s, and the eruption of pop art in the 1960s.

Students: 800, mainly British postgraduates; 70 per cent study design and 30 per cent art.

Links: Runs an MA in the history of design with the V&A, and an MA in innovation design engineering with Imperial College London.

Who's the boss? Paul Thompson is the rector; Sir Terence Conran is provost.

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