RCA makes redundancies across School of Design

An open letter drafted by School of Design staff argues that the move eliminates the practitioner academic role central to design education.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) has announced redundancies across its School of Design impacting all associate lecturers on fixed-term, part-time contracts.

The part-time roles, many of which are currently 0.2 and 0.4 full time equivalent (FTE) – or one and two days per week – will no longer be available, with only a smaller number of contracts with higher hours available going forward.

A spokesperson for the RCA says that the RCA “is ending 21 fixed-term, part-time contracts on their expected end date, as set out in the original letters of engagement”, which they say is “equivalent to 2.9 full-time staff”.

They add: “Permanent roles equivalent to 9.8 full-time staff in the School of Design are currently being advertised.

“Four of those with a contract expiring with the School of Design hold contracts in other areas of the RCA, and we are also encouraging those on fixed-term contracts to apply for permanent roles.”

In response to the redundancies announced since the 21 June, an open letter in opposition to the has been published, which was drafted by School of Design staff and supported by the RCA branch of the University and College Union (RCA UCU). It invites students, staff and alumni of the RCA, as well as those from other higher education institutions, to lend their support.

The open letter describes the move as “wholly ideological”, and spokespeople from the RCA UCU commented that HR staff had communicated that it was “not for financial reasons”.

Specialist practitioner-lecturers within design education

According to the letter, the move endangers the practitioner academic role that exists within design universities, whereby lecturers spend part of their time in professional design practice, and some time teaching students.

The letter says the restructure: “effectively jettisons the crucial role of practitioner-lecturer at the RCA, which is also a core principle of art and design education.”

A spokesperson for the RCA has confirmed that the fixed-term contracts coming to an end “range from 0.03 (less than one day per month) to 0.4 (two days a week)”, whereas the nine newly advertised permanent roles “range from 0.6 (three days a week) to full time.”

An academic staff member from the RCA School of Design, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains that many of the redundancies involve long-term staff members.

“Some of my colleagues and friends have been there more than 10 years. They’re very embedded in the culture of the space and the delivery of the course. So to lose them would be an epic loss.”

They add: “the nature of the job that I have been doing for the last 10 years is very specialised”. They explain that their own specialism is hugely in demand in the UK, and for those reasons, its graduates have always been assured jobs.

“Within the new system, there are no specialisms”, they add.

An RCA UCU spokesperson adds that a lecturer-practitioner “brings their network, brings their research into the RCA”. They say that while the RCA might argue that the new positions increase the time for research “on a spreadsheet”, what they don’t acknowledge is “the research that is done by the practitioners in the field”.

In response to the open letter’s comments on the loss of the lecturer-practitioner role, a spokesperson for the RCA said to design week:

“The RCA continues to have industry-leading guest lecturers in all of our Schools.

“Practitioner-lecturers will always be an important part of the RCA academic offer, alongside research-active academics with postgraduate teaching qualifications.”

According to the RCA UCU spokesperson, the role of guest lecturer holds a different function: “They can get this one big name in for a talk, but they forget that every day these specialists work with the students.”

A threat to diversity

An RCA UCU spokesperson also highlights that the lower hours contracts tend to favour more diverse staff members, and that while those able to secure a new full-time post will gain career stability, others will lose out.

“As we found out time and time again, those in the lower fractions occupy a much more diverse range or people in terms of black, brown, queer, female and disabled colleagues”.

Another RCA UCU spokesperson adds that having more individual tutors is more valuable to students: “We are all great teachers, but we are better if three of us teach students different perspectives.

“This is postgraduate education, right; not for teaching people skills, we teach students to question their skills, and you need any different perspectives on that.”

They add: “The RCA is trying to constantly do the same with less”, and while still the number one Postgraduate design educator, “at some point it stops”.

Reaction from outside

At the time of writing the open letter had more than 1100 signatories, and more than 200 comments and testimonies, which the RCA UCU has collected anonymously.

One industry member had commented that their “colleagues, friends and collaborators” from the RCA are valued “due to the diverse skill sets they have gained through learning from a varied teaching staff”, adding that cutting these roles ” is a “fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the RCA a legendary arts and fashion educational institution”.

Another writes: “I know, from personal experience, the importance of being able to maintain an art practice whilst teaching, and the value our students place in this. My own practice would be unsustainable on anything larger than a 0.5 FTE contract.”

A lack of communication and moving towards decasualisation

A further problem, according to a RCA UCU spokesperson, is the way the news has been communicated, which shows “the contempt or lack of care”.

The anonymous staff member notes that there is much confusion among colleagues who have not been told directly, and claims that there is a lack of communication coming from senior management and HR.

Since being “the worst in the UK”, for casualisation of its workforce, says the RCA UCU spokesperson, in reference to the 2016 UCU Precarious work in higher education report, much progress has been made, with the associate lecturer role having been created as part of a campaign to end zero-hours contracts.

Commenting on the success of how different parties worked together previously, the UCU spokesperson adds that the RCA has “missed” the opportunity to work “together with their staff and the union to make these changes in an equitable way.”

A spokesperson for the RCA says: “We will continue to review the types of contracts available in response to the teaching and research requirements of the School. We remain committed to decasualising our workforce by offering permanent posts wherever possible.”

Banner image credit: Royal College of Art – Dyson building in Battersea. Credit: Sinai Noor, via Shutterstock

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