No room for the faint-hearted at the RCA

As you read this, Christopher Frayling knows his fate. He is either rector-in-waiting at the Royal College of Art, poised to take over when Tony Jones returns to the US this summer, or he has been passed over for the job for the second time. As we go to press, his appointment is close but unconfirmed and our fingers are crossed for him.

And our fingers will remain crossed, when, as we hope, Frayling succeeds in his goal this time, for as rector, the RCA’s own History Man will face a daunting task. It is an unholy time for education and the RCA – one of the few postgraduate art and design colleges in the world – attracts much public attention, especially now as we celebrate the college’s centenary and that of William Morris, who some see as the RCA’s spiritual father.

RCA design graduates have better prospects than most in winning work, but they have high cash requirements during their studies, estimated by some to be 20 000 a year. Under Jones, a pledge was made for 100 new bursaries to be set up this year so prospective students could still be judged on their talents rather than their ability to pay. That task has still to be completed.

Still on cash, like all colleges the RCA relies heavily on industrial sponsorship. But the trick is to gain financial support without prostituting the students by “selling” the benefactor a source of cheap, inexperienced design skills.

For the RCA the challenge is double-edged. To keep ahead in terms of thinking and technological developments it needs futuristic international firms such as the Disney Corporation as allies, but again without compromising staff or students.

Finally, there’s the need to build a reputation for research – a challenge facing all design schools. Frayling should excel at this given his work as historian and commentator, but it will take cash and unerring commitment to boost research while maintaining high standards of skills and creativity. Fainter hearts might baulk at the prospect. But good luck, Chris. You’re up to the challenge.

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