New RCA rector seeks lucrative commissions

May 17, 1996

The new rector of the Royal College of Art is aiming to raise the international profile of the college to make it the international research institute for art and design. He also intends to fight for other art institutions.

Christopher Frayling, who was promoted from pro-rector last month, can already point to an 80 per cent increase in research and contracts income in 1994/95 over the previous year. The RCA's research drive is spearheaded by three major research programmes worth nearly Pounds 9 million. These include designing for the "greying" population and improving the design of the human-computer interface.

"One of the challenges for the future is to spread the net wider, secure more work through the research councils and public-private sources here and overseas," says Professor Frayling.

He argues that the RCA must find new sources of funding urgently, in part because of the college's frequent clashes with the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "Frankly, they do not understand the emphasis we and the music, drama and dance schools place on one-to-one teaching and our concentration on a limited number of disciplines. It's an uphill task but we have to explain ourselves to HEFCE very carefully."

Professor Frayling accepts that education at the RCA is expensive but says this does not mean that the college is inefficient: "According to our lights we are very efficient. One musn't say efficiency equals cheapness."

He wants to join forces with music, drama and dance institutions to form a lobby group that will promote strengths and highlight concerns. He has already started talking to the music colleges. "People seem to think actors, artists, designers and musicians spring Minerva-like out of someone's head. They don't. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to produce them."

For Professor Frayling, art and design education, as with music, dance and drama, has at its heart a very personal transaction between student and tutor and a course structure that develops in line with individual needs. "It has to be a people place and the RCA is going to hang on to that absolutely to the death. That is the college."

He stresses that the preservation of the kind of education offered by the RCA does not preclude looking at different methods of delivery. The RCA is sensitive, for instance, to changes in undergraduate education such as modularity and distance learning. Students arrive at the RCA with breadth of knowledge, but lack depth in particular areas, and courses are changing to accommodate this.

Student enthusiasm for new technologies presents another big challenge, not least in the form of new resources. "It's not that we should be dominated by it all - there is too much art and design which just looks high tech by virtue of the technology that produced it. We want to absorb new technologies and use them as a kind of tool."

The latest production techniques are already helping to transform work at the applied arts department, which runs courses in ceramics and glass, and metalwork and jewellery. The department has been producing fine one-off pieces for 150 years but digital and advanced production technologies are enabling production in batches. Professor Frayling regards this as a "real paradigm shift" with the crafts beginning to shade into industrial design.

His rectorship will also be marked by the second part of a major internal review of management and teaching. He wants to take a group of senior professors on a fact-finding mission to see how the RCA compares globally.

He wants to see how, for example, an "extraordinary and innovative course" just launched at the Cologne Industrial Institute is faring. The course emphasises humanising design activity rather than technical prowess.

Another interesting institution is the Medialab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where scientists, artists and designers are working together to resolve the issue of how new technologies relate to fine art.

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