Design departments are more intent than ever before on showing off the quality of their research for the forthcoming research assessment exercise, writes Kam Patel.
Optimism about the health of design research in colleges is voiced by Norma Starszakowna, chair of the art and design RAE panel that will scrutinise the entries.
She said there could be a "surprisingly big increase" in submissions for the 2001 exercise.
Higher Education Funding Council for England statistics reveal that 59 institutions entered the art and design section of the 1992 RAE, rising to 89 in 1996.
Hefce figures do not separate art and design research, making analysis difficult. But Professor Starszakowna, based at the London College of Fashion, estimates that 36 of the 1992 submissions included some element of design.
She estimates that of the 89 institutions registered for the 1996 exercise, about 62 included design areas for submission.
Professor Starszakowna said this upward trend indicates infrastructure for the support of design research within higher education has steadily matured in recent years. It is supported by increasing interest in industrially relevant research.
The reasons for the relatively poor past performance of design research are complex, but Professor Starszakowna pointed to concerted moves in the early 1980s by design departments to move closer to industry, primarily to ensure graduates the best possible chance of gaining employment. "Jobs often are simply not advertised. Contacts and student placements are everything."
This coincided with the growing popularity of design degrees and a rising intake that continued during the 1990s. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the total number of first-year students in design studies rose from 15,000 in 1994-95 to 18,500 in 1998-99.
Professor Starszakowna said: "Design departments have been victims of their own success. That success has been achieved with very little extra funding. Student:staff ratios have suffered and the time has not been there for staff to carry out research." The establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which has design research under its remit, should help address some of these problems, she said.
Martin Woolley, head of the five-star-rated design department at Goldsmiths College, London, believes one major issue that needs to be confronted by academics, funding bodies and industry is the role of design research in a rapidly changing industrial climate.
He said: "There has been a lack of cohesion between academic research culture and professional design practice. We have failed to address the design industries in a distinct and appropriate way. There has also been an inability to create meaningful practice-based alliances."
Professor Woolley, a panel member of the past two RAEs, pointed out that formal academic design research is still a relatively new discipline. As a result of this, it suffers a "credibility gap" with commercial partners because there have been relatively few successful collaborative design research initiatives. He believes that design research has the potential to forge the kind of long-term academic partnerships that are evident in sectors such as engineering and pharmaceuticals.
There are equally important challenges for industry and the funding bodies. "There is a lack of recognition by creative industries of either the need for, or the benefits of, academic investigation," he said.
Meanwhile, the funding agencies could also help by dropping their relatively narrow definition of "industry". "It needs redefining so that it is broader, embracing not just traditional companies but contemporary design practices associated with innovative consultancies and knowledge industry sectors like e-
design," said Professor Woolley.