A foot in both camps

November 26, 1999

Art, music, drama and business lecturers should have short contracts and work outside the academy, says Christopher Frayling

A couple of weeks ago, I was phoned about a league table, compiled by lecturers' union Natfhe for the academic year 1997-98, which examined the percentage of non-permanent academic staff working in universities and colleges. The Royal College of Art had come out top of the league with 100 per cent non-permanent staff. The conclusion of the survey was that this was "bad news".

Could the statistic be true, asked the caller? Yes, indeed it was. Did it, as the survey suggested, reveal "the extent of increasing casualisation in the sector"? No, it certainly did not. I added that I was pretty sure the other high percentage universities and colleges in the league table would turn out to be - like the RCA - concerned with pre-professional education at a very specialised level: a music college, perhaps, and a drama college plus a business school.

This was confirmed by the table: the RCA figure was 100 per cent; Trinity College of Music, 98 per cent; Central School of Speech and Drama, 89 per cent; St George's Hospital Medical School, 84 per cent; and the London Business School, 83 per cent. These were the top five. I cannot answer for my colleagues in music, drama, medicine and business, but I know why the Royal College of Art depends so crucially on non-permanent staff - and it has nothing to do with "increasing casualisation".

The contract system goes back to 1948, when as part of the post-war restructuring of the college, Robin Darwin, the new RCA head, persuaded the ministry of education to establish a series of practitioner-professorships and to accept the idea that "all teaching staff would in future continue in practice and give regular evidence of practice the equivalent of scholarly work at a university".

This practice would not necessarily take place on college premises - it was likely that teaching staff would have their own design consultancies or studios. It was, however, essential if the RCA was to offer a genuine pre-professional education that its staff had another life that was firmly embedded in the professions of art, design and communications. There would be a cadre of full-time members of staff for "purposes of policy and implementation", with a much larger number of part-time and visiting staff. To avoid any hierarchical distinction between full-timers and part-timers, as many of the part-timers as possible would be given a contract of parity with the full-timers but for a pro rata

fraction of time per week.

However senior a member of academic staff might be, no contract could be held for more than five years, nor would it be renewed automatically. This was, Darwin concluded, to give a small college (now 800 postgraduate students) the ability to keep the average age of its staff young. He did not want "career academics": he wanted high-level practitioners who probably had no wish to commit themselves to an institution for the duration. A life contract would be likely to scare them stiff. One of his favourite lines on this was: "A lifetime professor of fashion? She'd still be lecturing on cycling bloomers."

This system of 1948 laid the groundwork for today's contractual arrangements. The college's close relationships with its surrounding professions - right across the board, from practitioner-professors to visiting lecturers - are one key to its success, with employment statistics that tell their own story. But they should in no sense be confused with "increasing casualisation".

Some staff members happen to have served, through contract renewals, for a long time. The average tenure of current professors is 11 years. A senior tutor in communications is completing 33 years. But some prefer to return to full-time practice after teaching and researching for a time.

At undergraduate level, there are obvious arguments for continuity and for lifetime careers within the academy. At postgraduate, pre-professional level, however, there are equally obvious academic arguments for something resembling our system. This has nothing to do with academic freedom: some of the most radical, cutting-edge practitioners are the ones who have the least desire to be institutionalised.

I do not think the fact that the Royal College of Art employs 100 per cent non-permanent academic staff is "bad news" at all. On the contrary, it is essential. The likely European Union directive of next year, aimed at reducing the use of, and the repeated renewal of, fixed-term contracts could do serious damage. In particular, and ironically, damage to practising professionals who want to contribute to postgraduate courses and research over a substantial period of time but who are not interested in tenure.

Christopher Frayling is rector of the Royal College of Art.

Are music, drama, art, medical and business schools right to avoid giving their staff permanent jobs?

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