'I'm leaving the sexiest job in higher education'

The RCA's departing chief tells Rebecca Attwood he's proud to have pushed creative arts to centre stage

June 5, 2008

As head of the Royal College of Art, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling claims to have "the sexiest job in higher education".

"I find the company of very, very creative young people - and, indeed, practitioner staff - incredibly energising. Visitors always say, 'God, there is a buzz in this place'."

Without doubt, "buzz" surrounds RCA's summer show, which got under way last week. The annual event attracted 72,000 people last year.

Despite his love of the RCA, which he has led for 12 years, Sir Christopher has decided it is time to go. "I never want to be the person of whom it is said 'he stayed too long'." In August next year, he will step down to pursue writing and broadcasting.

The announcement of his departure follows a turbulent period in another of his posts. He is chairman of the Arts Council, which earlier this year faced high-profile protests after deciding to redistribute its grants. The furore led to a public falling-out with Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre's artistic director.

The decision to leave the RCA, where Sir Christopher has spent 35 years of his career, is unrelated and was "intuitive", he told Times Higher Education.

"When I first arrived at the college in 1973 as a tutor, I was like the students' brother, then I became their uncle and now I'm their grandfather. They stay the same age and I get a year older."

Sir Christopher, a Cambridge graduate who has written books on subjects ranging from spaghetti westerns to Tutankhamun, said that when he started in the role there was "incredible snobbery" about both art schools and the "more practical" universities.

He remembers going to his first meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (which is now Universities UK) and being asked where he worked. When Sir Christopher replied with "RCA", his questioner asked, "Isn't that where they mend fuses?"

His "big campaign" has been to get the creative industries and, in particular, art schools, much more recognition - nationally, politically and educationally.

He has been keen to position the RCA - whose alumni include David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Ridley Scott - as "a crucible of the creative industries", and he argues it has now moved centre stage.

"It is such an important institution and was so underrated in the old days by everybody, not least the university establishment. This idea that the highest form of human endeavour is to write about art, not do it - I find that a very difficult thought."

He sees Design-London, the partnership between the RCA and Imperial College London, which was announced last year, as a clear sign that the RCA's work is being taken seriously. "I thought that was a really big moment - you are doing business with someone who is of equivalent status in their world."

He is also proud of the Helen Hamlyn Centre, which is devoted to design for an ageing population. "Art schools were famous in the 1960s for not being very thoughtful... This is a research centre that is very thoughtful about the future, about citizenship, (about) design for need, for people, rather than design for profit."

The college is based "on a pocket handkerchief" in South Kensington, but it is about to begin developing a second campus in Battersea.

The site, which is currently home to the sculpture department, has just gained planning permission for a new painting department. There are also plans for studios, workshops and teaching spaces for printmaking and photography, ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellery, units for start-up creative businesses, a lecture theatre and a gallery.

"I've got most of the money (for the project) in the bank, and by the time I leave I'll have all of it," Sir Christopher promised.

Protecting the college's distinctive character and small scale has been vital because, he believes, there is no better way to teach art, but doing so has "kept him on his toes".

"The whole tendency of higher education is against the college's structure - small, face-to-face, postgrad, high-cost, SW7," he said. "Everything is getting bigger and bigger, and the unit cost per student is going down. "

Size, he thinks, is also an ethical issue. "Our department of jewellery has 20 graduates a year. We've a pretty clear idea how many the world can cope with. I don't think it is right to overproduce."

Sir Christopher believes art schools could provide a model for the future of higher education. Their focus on project-based work and practitioner research is increasingly relevant, he said, while engaging with employers is second nature.

"Phrases such as 'employer engagement' scare the pants off a lot of my colleagues in mainstream universities - we just do it. You can't have design without employer engagement. It just doesn't exist unless you've got someone commissioning it, or setting the brief or manufacturing it," he said.

"I went to some conferences last year and people said, 'Employer engagement? You mean employer domination.' I said, 'It is not like that - you just evolve some sort of creative relationship with the real world.'?"

But Sir Christopher argues that art education as an education for life is still underappreciated. He said: "It encourages people to be flexible minded, good at problem solving, nimble on their feet, and very sensitive to the world around them."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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