Analysis: Arts and design put on a good RAE show

December 7, 2001

Creative subjects have started to focus on research. Caroline Davis reports.

Funding chiefs have already revealed that half the staff returned in this year's research assessment exercise work in departments that are expected to gain 5 and 5* ratings when the results are announced next Friday. There will be arguments about whether this is grade inflation, whether institutions have become more strategic in their submissions or whether there is a true increase in excellence.

One area in particular will argue that there has been a genuine improvement in standards. Ian McLaren, a research professor in design at De Montfort University and a panelist for the 2001 RAE for the art and design unit of assessment, said: "There has been a significant increase in art research. Institutions that have an interest in this sector have adopted a much more serious approach this year. It wouldn't be surprising if there was an increase in results."

The creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1998 made this explosion possible, he said. Before the AHRB, there was little culture of research or applying for grants in art departments. Funding opportunities were rare, especially for group projects.

This showed in the results of the 1996 exercise, when art and design came 59th out of 69 categories. Three departments gained a 5* rating - the Slade School at University College, London, Brunel University and Goldsmiths College. Results at the specialist art institutions were not as impressive: the London Institute submitted only half its staff and was rated at 3a; the Royal College of Art submitted over 80 per cent of its staff but was rated 4; and the Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College scored 1.

The AHRB was formed in response to Lord Dearing's 1997 report on UK higher education. Chief executive David Eastwood believes its impact will not be felt until the next RAE. "A number of major projects have not yet reached fruition," he said.

But nevertheless, the AHRB has enabled large-scale opportunities for group research for the first time. Professor Eastwood believes that the board has brought research to the centre of the agenda for many of the creative and performing arts.

Another trigger for the growth of research in this sector is wealth creation. Elaine Thomas, director of the Surrey Institute, argues that art and design research is essential to the economic health of the United Kingdom, both through employment and exports. Creative industries, particularly film, video and animation, have been using academic research.

Professor Thomas argues that a successful research department is crucial to building an international reputation. While research is core to enhancing subject quality for students, they also gain through the visibility of their tutors' research work.

The debate on what constitutes research in art is still raging . The traditional idea of research is laboratory-based science - the researcher formulates a hypothesis, carries out experiments, the results are written up in a paper that is peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal.

This does not immediately translate to the creative and performing arts. This year's RAE panel lists 15 types of research output for art and design, ranging from exhibitions and catwalk presentations to patents and authored articles in journals.

The AHRB asks applicants to state their research questions and strategy, but Professor Eastwood said the definition remained fluid. "Research culture in practice-based disciplines is still developing," he said. "We maintain that there is a distinction between creativity and research."

Professor McLaren explained: "We offer as broad a definition of research as possible. Any publicly accessible work of art may be submitted. With fine art, credibility is given to the venues at which academics exhibit."

This lack of clarity may be another reason why it has taken time for art and design departments to realise that they can submit staff's work as research. The London Institute, for example, admits that it did not take the 1996 RAE seriously.

Submissions from art colleges range from handbags designed to discourage crime (a project at Central St Martins College funded by the Home Office and the Design Council) to software for e-commerce and underwear from De Montfort University.

In the 1996 RAE, the average result was a 3a or 3b. Should the funding councils decide not to fund departments rated lower than 4, art and design research has reason for pessimism.

With art and design research still an emerging area, there are fears that it could be stalled before it takes off, leaving many departments purely a "profession or vocational training" arena.

Surrey Institute is hoping to increase its rating from 1 to 3a this time and up to a 5 by 2006. Professor Thomas said: "The new universities only got access to research funding in 1992. We are all concerned that 3a and 3b may not be funded. Give us a chance. It takes time and investment to build up a research portfolio."

Universities have a vested interest in helping all their departments to achieve as high a rating as possible since money awarded by the funding councils for research can be spent as the institution wishes. Some institutions hand the cash straight to the department, others topslice for "central costs" and hand over the rest, while others use the money strategically.

Specialist institutions feel they have had another disadvantage. Staff in art and design departments in universities can chat with colleagues in established research fields to gain tips on how to play the RAE game. Universities often have a more established research infrastructure. This is borne out by the 1996 results.

Professor Thomas said: "Specialist institutions are there to promote the subject, so quality is crucial. They must be good at both teaching and research and they must advance the subject... There's no way a specialist institution can afford not to care about research."

This has spurred some colleges into closer collaboration with university neighbours.

Will Bridge, head of the London Institute's London College of Printing, said: "We had to deliberately go out and ensure that we were learning from the multi-faculty institutions, especially the University College London. Other joint projects with universities have helped ensure we're not missing the tricks that universities can pass around their common rooms."

Research at the London Institute has taken off since 1996, with an increase in research students from 24 to 115. The institute hopes to boost its 3a rating to at least 5.

But art institutions have been able to teach the universities a trick or two. Art colleges have always employed a high percentage of their academics part time, giving them more time to practise and providing a larger pool of staff to choose from for their RAE submissions.

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