Royal College of Art risks becoming
a "Chinese finishing school"

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Royal College of Art risks becoming a "Chinese finishing school"

News: the Royal College of Art will end up as a "Chinese finishing school" unless the UK government does more to encourage young people to study art and design, according to writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr.

Marr said the RCA, which this week celebrates its 175th anniversary, was set up by the government to counter the threat of economic decline caused by high-quality goods from overseas markets, but feared politicians today failed to appreciate the importance of design education.

"Design doesn't feature on new models of the core curriculum," Marr writes on the BBC's website. "Art colleges are under the financial cosh. You'd almost get the impression that Westminster [the home of UK government] and Albertopolis [the swathe of South Kensington in London where the Royal College of Art is located] are now different planets."

This Monday, Marr hosted a special edition of Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 to celebrate the RCA's 175th anniversary with guests including former RCA rector and Arts Council chair Sir Christopher Frayling.

In the show, Frayling pointed out that the creative industries provided twice as many UK jobs as financial services, but that this contribution went unnoticed.

"What I never understand is, there are so many column inches about financial services all the time," Frayling told Marr. "Financial services contributes about 1% more than the creative industries, which employ two million people whereas financial services employ one million people. So in terms of contribution to the economy generally, the creative industries actually have it over financial services in almost every way. And how many column inches about it? Very little. So there's this huge impact but people don't seem to be noticing."

In his article, Marr argues that because the economic value of art schools is difficult to measure, politicians fail to appreciate their importance to the economy.

"And there's where I think the trouble lies," Marr concludes. "To invest in art and design means putting public money into areas whose value cannot be captured on a spreadsheet, where concepts like productivity, value-for-money, inputs and outputs - which so reassure the political world - simply collapse. That means faith. It means risk.

"But, without it, hard times surely stretch out rather bleakly. Other countries understand this, including China where more than a thousand art and design colleges are operating and whose students greatly benefit from colleges here too.

"If we don't do more to encourage our young people to art and design, Frayling tells me, the RCA will find itself simply 'a Chinese finishing school'."

During the radio show, Frayling pointed out that the fears over economic decline that led to the foundation of the RCA were similar to contemporary fears. "There was a select committee looking at manufactures and our exports and our balance of payments and they looked at French silk and wallpaper and they looked at industrial design in Prussia and Bavaria and they said what could we do to improve the quality of design for manufacture?" Frayling said.

He added: "And they also said why is there this snobbery about applied arts? Why are we so good at luxury goods and not so good at mass manufactured goods? So they set up the Government School of Design, which is the origin of public sector art education in this country."

Andrew Marr is one of the UK's foremost political writers and broadcasters and is former editor of The Independent.

See all our stories about the Royal College of Art »

  • Graham

    “If we don’t do more to encourage our young people to art and design, Frayling tells me, the RCA will find itself simply ‘a Chinese finishing school’.”

    Sounds like it may be heading the same way as most other postgrad art and design courses in the UK have already then.

    • anaon

      Agreed. I currently study at Central Saint Martins and I would say describing it as a Chinese finishing school is a very accurate description of what it already is. Sad really.

  • lingjing

    I don’t think the problem is about encouraging more local British people to study art and design at all! There needs to be more support and awareness of how to make use of creative people in society from both public and private sectors.

    Because most of the time we’ve found we are not employable after graduated from the RCA, which is a problem eventually! Nowadays we see a lot of designers are become entrepreneurs, journalists, educators, film-makers or even politicians. Maybe it should be another way around to turning all the decision maker (i.e. business people and politicians) to adopt design thinking and co-create with those “selfish” designers.

    BTW, RCA is impossible to replicate. Design and art academies in China need to stop recruiting students before they find enough qualified teachers.

    • http://twitter.com/HeavenlyProsper @HeavenlyProsper

      People come and go. The local people go here and there. Cities are lost. Because of globalisation?

  • http://www.eyespectacle.com/ Eyespectacle

    Sad but true: business are in fact afraid of putting a value on design (and I would add innovation). This is the constant battle of us designers :-(

  • MA(RCA)

    Why focus on the Chinese? There is a huge number of European and Jewish students as well! And let’s not get on to how many foreign students personally know some of the RCA tutors before the application. It’s full of nepotism unfortunately.

  • Kris

    I am sure more British people would apply to the RCA if the fees were not so large.

    • Amos

      This is slightly off the main subject but as it’s a common misconception about the RCA it seems worth addressing: the fees at the RCA for UK and EU students are basically the same as other UK colleges/universities – or at least they were during my recent period of study there, 2010-2012.

      The difference in terms of cost to the student is simply that the RCA MA is a two-year and very much full-time course where as most others are 1 to 1.5 years and sometimes offered as a part-time course (enabling part-time work).

      At the RCA there is also a bursary scheme for home students, though I am sure cuts are now eating into that. Like many other UK (and overseas) students there I did ultimately do some part-time work to support my studies whilst at the RCA. I still finished considerably in debt, but no more than I would have done doing another full-time two year MA and intellectually it was worth every penny, not least due to the cultural diversity and quality of students there.

      Whilst this year’s nationwide university fee increase also affects the RCA (and that increase will certainly prevent many less well-off students doing postgraduate study regardless of the institution – I would have been one), there is no more of a barrier to UK/EU people studying at the RCA than any other UK institution other than the intense competition for places. And while there may (or may not) be more overseas students applying and getting in, there are more places on the courses. More places, but unfortunately not necessarily (yet) more resources… and that’s the cuts again!

      • Kris

        I’ll add a note that it is a private institution – the same as the AA – and therefore you cannot get a student loan for architecture, which I study, whereas you can for other institutions. My apologies: I should have mentioned I studied architecture.

  • Andy

    Things need to be seen in perspective. They talk about Chinese because there has been an incredible quick rise in the numbers of Chinese students in the last few years.

    Six years ago there was, probably less than 10 in the whole college. Because overseas students pay nearly 3 times more than EU or UK students they have increased the quota of overseas students coming in. And what is the problem with that, you might ask.

    1_ It means talent gets cut out because of money. So the level of the courses goes down, since is not the most talented who get in, but the most talented amongst those that have the money! Which is obviously not a lot of people (overseas pay £26,900 x 2 years= £53800 + add living expenses in London).

    2_ Because the talent average goes down, the quality of the output is not that high which damages the reputation of the college and ultimately its brand value and the value x money relation decreases.

    3_ The reduction in the diversity of students cultural background reduces the quality of the exchanges between students which was one of the key factors at RCA.

    4_ But most importantly, if students are overseas when they finish the MA, they take (must take because of visa) their training and learning back with them, which means no wealth is created in the UK/ EU is terms of products, patents, services or employment by former alumni.

    Just some thoughts. Feel free to comment.

    • http://www.studioschrofer.com Sonia

      Very much agree with you Andy. Students studying industrial design can’t find the industry to produce their wares. Europe has lost its economic mojo because it sent its production eastwards. I am not aware of the the specifics at RCA, however here in Holland (and I imagine much of the EU) we suffer the same ailments: the ROI is zero when students return to their home countries after graduation. Many teachers also aren’t really in touch with the plight of the local industries and how foreign competition is killing local economies. So are we raising an innovative generation only to be made redundant in un-innovative corporations?

    • kdkdk

      There’s a reason why they are talented and have money! Obviously it’s money from the parents and their parents are clever enough to make that money. It’s in the genes, duh.

  • Graham

    Totally agree with Andy.

    This is not a racist issue, it’s more of a “what about encouraging the British to continue on to Postgraduate level too?” Surely that’s a no brainer (government!), to want to encourage and teach our own kind as well? Ultimately foreign students bring much to the mix (and certainly help stir up the cultural/creative melting pot), but if the mix is lost to market forces (i.e. government policy) then everybody loses… especially the UK’s key USP as a nation – creativity!

    Although other British art schools don’t charge any where as much in terms of fees as the RCA does, this is what has already happened at PG level. In this sense the RCA is behind the curve. International students are being positively encouraged and accepted, as they bring in typically twice the amount of revenue than their UK/EU peers. As a result of financial pressures many universities appear to have lost sight of what they were set up to do… educate our next generations for the good of us all.

    I think if someone was to bother doing an overall head count across the UK as to percentages most people would be very concerned (and confused).

    I’m for the mix, that’s where creativity comes from after all, and so welcome Andrew Marr stirring up the debate.

  • Errik

    The wider issue, as rightly stated above, is about PG institutions and courses finding themselves having to attract foreign students who pay the full amount of tuition fees instead of letting in willing local students, due to government spending cuts and rise in tuition fees in an overall sense.

    Truth is, it’s not just designers. Sir James Dyson recently spoke out about the decline of engineering as a field of study that seems to be attracting far fewer local applicants, and more foreign students who invariably leave the country due to visa restrictions.

    But as Andrew Marr stated, the subjectivity of the value derived from art & design courses versus the hard data, facts and figures which other courses can offer means that our preserve as creative individuals will only exist on the fringe until and unless we pull our socks up, offer more tangible and concrete solutions through design instead of airy fairy “concepts.” I will not deny the power of concepts, but the have to be relevant to today’s needs, if not, at least the immediate future.

    This publication/website should ideally do more to promote work that doesn’t just sit pretty in the home or some contrived “context.” The onus lies with us, not “the man” who is too busy protecting bankers and war merchants.

  • ruchira

    At any cost design has to be encouraged amongst one and all. Designing is the only thing that humans create, the rest all is taken care of by the creator. After destroying mother earth to such a level in which we live, the only contribution we as humans can do is by DESIGNING, so let the good institutes LIVE!

  • http://www.wsurw.com Cyrille

    I think labeling the RCA as a Chinese finishing school obviously is an attempt to attract attention, first and foremost. RCA attracts international students and it is a fact that the Chinese are 1/7th of the world’s population.

    Secondly, being an RCA graduate myself and having attended students’ selection and portfolio filtering in the year 2007/2008, rest assured that if a student is good he will be accepted regardless of where he comes from, religion or any other parameter.
    Being an international student myself, I had to pay 7x what UK and EU students had to pay, so saying that the government doesn’t encourage them is inaccurate.

    A simplistic solution would be quotas for all the countries of the world but that would drop the outstanding level of the RCA, which is hardly happening anytime soon.

  • http://www.jamiejoseffry.com Jamie Josef Fry

    To remove creativity is to kill creation. As a country we must revolt, we must force a change! An unelected, undesired government should not be allowed to plant the seeds that could kill creation.

    Design should be taught alongside the sciences, alongside engineering. In my mind they are not separate subjects. The laws of physics affect how we engineer and how we engineer effects how we design, there are better engineers and there are better designers but they should all have the opportunity to learn, to exist. Education and healthcare needs to remain free, those with true potential should be taught and the others without should be pushed into the area that they excel! We shouldn’t accept people into education because they mean money. Creating a business out of a standardised education system will only kill it.

    Above all this government kills hope! Without hope without creation, without innovation how do they expect to revive the economy. I’m sad for the UK, so very sad.

  • Pete

    I believe one aspect of this situation is the fact that the school, as with any art and design school in the UK nowadays, requires a rather high percentage of fees.

    Moreover, I have heard that they are asking for some kind of fees in order to apply to the school, but if this is true then personally I don’t agree with it.

    Apart from this is the fact that we’re living in a globalized market which requires – demands – a faster pace almost in everything, which subsequently minimizes the level of quality products and people have.

    We simply have to decide what exactly we want, not only in education but also in our lives as a whole: quality or a faster pace of consumption?

    • Eric

      £65 applicaition fee.

      • Pete

        Thanks for confirming my query Eric. Totally unacceptable!

  • Eric Donnalds

    I was accepted to go to the RCA but couldn’t afford it. Not sure where you are meant to find £9000 a year, plus living fees, plus materials, computer, travel and I would hope a well-deserved bevy after a lenghty crit without the support of a wealthy set of parents, which I gladly don’t have.

    Bartlett offered an argubly better course, for a third of the price. It still offers quality in teaching, services and student projects.

    • denise

      I’ve never heard of Bartlett. Where is it located and what does it teach, and at what level(s)? How long is the course and how much does it cost? Did you go there and how did you find it?

      • Eric

        I’m surprised. The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. I thought it was a well-known institution but alas my knowledge is ill-gotten. Have a gander online.

  • Architizer

    Bashing the Chinese has become the new favourite sport of the bourgeois folks in Europe and the US. Sad really.

  • hastarika

    I thought this only happened in Indonesia.

  • Daniel

    It’s crackers, we no longer actually produce anything anymore in UK – APART FROM INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. When you kill the IP then it’s really over. This is the last commodity the country has.

  • Jonathan

    I’d love to go to the Royal College of Art but it seems they only let Chinese in because they’ve got more bloody money.Giving British students priority makes sense surely?