There were not a huge number of winners in George Osborne’s recent Budget, but the Royal College of Art was one, securing public funding of £54 million, already matched by the same sum from private sources, to expand its fields of teaching and research through a new campus.
The RCA, founded in 1837, moved into its main building on Kensington Gore, near Hyde Park in Central London, in 1961 and in recent years has expanded into a number of sites in Battersea.
When a plot of land adjoining the Battersea sites came up for sale, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. It is here that the new campus will open in 2021. Ten new master's programmes will come on stream and student numbers (all postgraduates) will increase from 1,700 to 3,000.
But why is the chancellor putting money into the project?
The essential business case was simple, according to rector Paul Thompson. The RCA is highly entrepreneurial, with a recent report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England describing it as having “the highest number of student spin-outs with university ownership in recent years in the UK”. Its commercialisation incubator, InnovationRCA, has nurtured 26 start-ups, attracting £14 million in funding from investors, over the past decade.
In approaching government, Dr Thompson explained that the RCA was able to say: “Please invest in us and we will provide a very healthy pipeline of creative entrepreneurs in areas of especial government interest, such as autonomous vehicles, housing, gaming, green design and architecture and design for ageing populations. We can continue to generate the industry leaders of the future.”
The RCA already has extensive experience of addressing major national challenges. The Helix Centre, run jointly with Imperial College London, embeds a design team within St Mary’s Hospital and gives them ward access. This enables the design team, said Dr Thompson, to look for “high-impact, low-cost healthcare solutions for the developed and developing world”.
When it was set up, one of the stipulations was that it would “deliver £10 million savings to the NHS over three years through design interventions”, which could mean design of “a product, service, environment or even procedure”, according to Dr Thompson. One striking example under development is a bowel-cancer screening kit to encourage far more people to submit stool samples, which could make a huge impact on early detection rates.
It is part of Dr Thompson’s central philosophy that “the really interesting things happening in response to major global challenges surface in areas where science, technology and design or the creative arts are intermingling”.
The new Battersea campus will build on existing initiatives through four new research centres. These include centres focusing on “intelligent mobility” for “autonomous vehicles in smart connected cities”; on material science, so that textile designers, for example, can try out new materials or new uses for old materials; and on the interface between computer science and design.
Yet Dr Thompson also stressed that the RCA was “still committed to fine art through painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography” and to its long-term partnerships with its Kensington neighbour, the Victoria and Albert Museum. The final new research centre will therefore be devoted to drawing, which he called “a primal act of human creativity which fell out of favour but has recently seen a real resurgence”.