University of Westminster arts school celebrates its famous offspring, but also eyes the future

Institution’s School of Media, Arts and Design is 25 this year. Its current dean takes Times Higher Education through the reasons behind its success

October 29, 2015
Scene from The Act of Killing, 2012
Source: Articulating history: The Act of Killing received worldwide critical acclaim and produced change in Indonesia

Try this quiz: what do fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Christopher Bailey, broadcaster and writer Charlie Brooker and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro have in common? They’re all graduates of the Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design – or at least one of its previous incarnations.

The school is celebrating a key moment in its history. The department was in effect born 25 years ago when Harrow College of Higher Education, a specialist arts institution, merged with the Polytechnic of Central London, which later became the University of Westminster.

But, as Kerstin Mey, the school’s current dean pointed out, the past quarter century has been notable for more than simply producing famous alumni. In the 2014 research excellence framework, Westminster was third overall in the art and design: history, practice and theory unit of assessment (UoA), and it was joint fifth overall for communication, cultural and media studies, library and information management. In both these UoAs, Westminster also placed strongly in terms of output and impact.

“We have built a very excellent research record in terms of the quality of our output and impact,” she told Times Higher Education. “We occupy a leading position in art and design, and media and communication. That’s really significant because the research quality also underpins the international reputation of our portfolio across the disciplines: fashion, photography and film, journalism and mass communication.

“There was an awareness that we were in very competitive fields and that significant effort was required to maintain a leading position within these fields, and our academics have risen to the challenge and worked particularly well in the area of impact in both areas.”

To evidence the university’s impact, Professor Mey cited the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, a film about the 1960s genocide in Indonesia, and The Family Legacy, a film about sickle-cell anaemia, directed by Westminster academics Joshua Oppenheimer and Jane Thorburn, respectively.

The Act of Killing created a debate in Indonesia and beyond around the genocide but also [sparked discussions about] the aesthetics at work in order to articulate this history and the contemporary situation,” Professor Mey said. “Jane Thorburn’s film was used here by the NHS for the west London communities and awareness-raising.”

Strong links with industry

Besides research accomplishment, Professor Mey continued, the school can take pride in its strong connections with industry – specifically its “practice-focused, research-oriented education”, which has been “very influential” in training and developing the new generation of professionals and also in providing leadership for the creative industries.

“Bringing together practice and research has enabled us to play an innovative role in many of our subject areas and to offer an education that is very relevant for our students – underpinned by placements in industry/businesses in London, and internationally,” she said. “We have to recognise that we have an extremely informed pool of potential applicants who will make a very clear choice [about] why they go to an institution.

“I do think that evidencing how we support the employability of our students will be crucial, but we need to think of employability in a broad context because the labour market in a global world is changing radically.”

On the recent decision to restructure the department and change its name from “faculty” to “school”, Professor Mey suggested that one factor was a desire to encourage more interdisciplinary working.

“The faculty was previously made up of very strong departments with strong identities fostering disciplinary excellence,” she said. “If you look at the cultural situation, as we are in a knowledge and service society, by restructuring our faculty we want to maintain disciplinary excellence but create more opportunities for exchange, sharing and collaboration across our areas of expertise.”

In a climate where change occurs at a furious pace, Professor Mey said that she wanted the school to “maintain the currency of our academic portfolio” in its next 25 years.

“That means that we build and include taking on board the continued changes that occur through digitisation and media and technology convergences,” she said. “That is, in itself, quite demanding because while we’re in the middle of it, it’s not that easy to anticipate where it’s going.”

Developing “international partnerships”, engaging in knowledge exchange and strengthening the postgraduate offer are also on the agenda.

In numbers

Westminster was third overall in the art and design: history, practice and theory unit of assessment in the REF 2014

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