Building a future for the RCA

Paul Thompson faces difficult challenges in his new role as rector of the Royal College of Art. Lynda Relph-Knight talks to him about his plans

The space is the same, but the office of Paul Thompson is very different to that of his predecessor, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling. Gone are the piles of books and papers that made the room virtually unusable for meetings under Frayling’s tenure as Royal College of Art rector. In their place, Thompson is busy installing artefacts by RCA alumni and eminent designers – a Jasper Morrison table, a Kenneth Grange lamp and works from various college departments.

It is early days. Thompson has only been in post since September, while Frayling had 13 years as rector to accumulate his hoard. But the change of style already reflects the difference in thinking, now a non-academic rules the roost.

Not that Thompson is a shirker, academically. He has postgraduate degrees and has worked in museums where research is key – as director of London’s Design Museum, where he and Catherine McDermott of Kingston University set up the joint Curating Contemporary Design course, and, more recently, as director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York.

Research is crucial to postgraduate colleges like the RCA, and Thompson aims to push this. Following US models, he plans to build longer relationships with funding councils and corporations, offering pure research as the incentive for engagement.

The RCA has a great track record for research, he says, but with the next official assessment due in 2013, he and head of humanities Jeremy Aynsley are looking to improve it. ‘Did well, but could do better’ is their mantra.

Funding, though, remains an issue – not just for the RCA, but across education. Frayling left the college in relatively good order, with the 10 per cent cuts demanded by Government implemented earlier this year. But with the next funding round due in March, Thompson is steeling himself for further cuts before public funding hits a flat period in what he predicts will be ‘a very difficult decade’.

‘The college has to demonstrate to the Higher Education Funding Council that it represents good value for money, playing an important part in wealth- and job-creation for UK plc,’ he says. But with industry and financial services in decline, he is optimistic that Britain can build on its global ‘success story’ in higher education.

‘We need to make a vociferous case to Government that we are particularly good at art and design in higher education,’ he says. But equally important, he says, is the need to make the RCA less dependent on public funds – the platform on which he was appointed.

Funding aside, Thompson is keen to expand the RCA’s repertoire and swell student numbers through new courses after the Battersea campus comes on stream in 2011. Already on track are the controversial interiors MA, a course focused on spatial design for which Hilary French, head of design and architecture, is compiling the curriculum, and critical writing under Aynsley.

Meanwhile, Thompson and RCA tutors are discussing more horizontal integration of courses to meet student demands. With the right structures in place, he hopes the RCA can tackle ‘big issues’ such as climate change, water and the need for mass housing.

One way could be to build on ‘winners’, such as the Helen Hamlyn Centre, to issue new MAs relating to inclusive design and social issues.

Growth is partly dependent on the completion of Battersea, with fundraising for the £12m third phase to house Applied Arts high on Thompson’s agenda. But other possibilities include greater interaction with RCA partner and neighbour Imperial College London. Thompson also has his eye on collaboration with US schools such as the Smithsonian, Rhode Island School of Design and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. Then there is the potential of schools in China and beyond.

Frayling’s parting advice to Thompson was to ‘get out from behind the desk’ and get to know the students as much as the external grandees, and he is doing that. The opening last week of the Battersea painting school as part of the RCA’s expansion plan afforded ample opportunity for both, but Thompson was already a figure in the college, supporting student initiatives such as the reopening of the college’s Art Bar.

‘The great thing about getting out from behind the desk is that there are only 800 students – it’s not like a big university,’ he says, likening the cobblestones of Jay Mews that bisects the Kensington campus to a village street. ‘The welcome I’ve had has been extraordinary.’

‘I do feel a big difference being in a postgraduate college, rather than a museum,’ he says. ‘Here, I’m at the coalface of people creating tomorrow.’ And he’s loving it.

Paul Thompson’s aims for the Royal College of Art

  • Grow the college’s research ratings
  • Complete the Battersea campus ‘with success and aplomb’
  • Bring new MA degrees on stream
  • Grow student numbers on existing courses
  • Steer a steady course on financial streams as the public purse becomes smaller
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  • Andy Penaluna November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    With the RCA’s excellent ‘Fuel’ initiative I’m a little disappointed that Thompson hasn’t grasped the nettle of using design skills to better business opportunities.

    His list at the foot of this article doesn’t appear to match the main body of text and support the students in developing their (and others) ideas beyond graduation.

    The RCA is very well placed to advance this agenda.

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