ZHUANGSHI interviewed Jane Rapley, the head of Central St. Martins

  • Update:2009-12-03
Editor's Note: On Friday afternoon, 6 November 2009,we interviewed Jane Rapley, the College Head of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design at the Tsinghua-Kopenhagen Fur Studio. The discussion centered around her philosophy of design education, the relationship between teaching, research and enterprise, the criteria for choosing students and the future move of Central Saint Martins.
Editor: As we know, you have been involved with design education for nearly forty years. Since 2006 you have been the Head of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Did it change your view of design education? I mean, in such a position, people always have to consider issues from an overall point of view.
Rapley: Yes, it did. However, not as much as it might had I not been working at Central Saint Martins College for the previous 17 years. But it does change your perspective because you have to think of the whole place. You also have to think about how you can support its survival. So you have to think more carefully about the curriculum, about the nature of the courses you offer, about how you are going to sustain your organization financially and why you are choosing to spend your budget in certain ways, which is quite difficult to learn. You also have to be much more aware of the medium-term aspirations of your government because at the end of the day they are providing the bulk of your funding. So you have to anticipate where government agenda is going to go and how you are going to be able to respond to it. So you do have to learn to think more of the longer term. I found that difficult.
Editor: You have various wonderful ideas about design education. Which of them are distinct from all others? Which of them have aroused controversies?
Rapley: Controversies are everywhere but I think our ideas about education are not revolutionary. They have evolved over a long period of time related both to British design education and also related to the histories of Central Saint Martins. They are things we have tried and tested over a long period of time. I suppose the core philosophy is that despite how many students we have each of them is an individual who has slightly different needs and will learn differently from the next one. So that is very difficult to actually cater for when you have 4000 students. But we hang on to the fact that they are individuals and they are real people and they will react to staff and to each other in their own way. And I suppose that the core fundamental approach is the teaching of creative practice. It is actually located in the individual person within the spectrum of practice they are interested in. Sometimes this is difficult to maintain but we feel quite passionate about it. In terms of controversy, what would be the most controversial, I am not sure. I am not revolutionary enough. I think we would build step by step. A long time ago, about 15 or 16 years ago, when I was in charge of the School of Fashion & Textile Design, we discussed whether the university would recruit more international students. We always had international students but the balance was under discussion. That is probably one of the most controversial things. The ambition of our senior management was to increase the number, the percentage of international students. Our staff found that quite worrying. They were concerned about how they would be able to teach those students, how these students would be absorbed. But it proved fantastic not only as it miraculously gives us our international reputation but also as they have brought such interest and diversity to the range of cultures in the College. They improved the experience of European and English students so much, so it is much easier for them all to understand that they work in a global world.
Editor: So you are standing on the side of international student project. Now how many international students are there in your college?
Rapley: We have probably about 1,500 or 1,600.
Editor: You have several globally famous students such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. How did you feel about them when they were your students?
Rapley: Well, they weren’t. John Galliano graduated in 1984. It was before I was in the college. Alexander McQueen was a student when I was running the school of Fashion and yes, he was different. He was special. He was an odd student but just very talented, very determined, very ambitious. But you know we have other famous graduates who are famous painters and famous designers.
Editor: Do you have some special criteria to choose or judge students?
Rapley: When they come in or when they go out ?
Editor: Both.
Rapley: I don’t think they are special criteria. I think when we recruit students, what we try to look for is basic talent and skill but you are looking for personality as well. This is more difficult when you are recruiting internationally but that is why applicants always see somebody from the University. You are not necessarily relying on paper qualifications. What you want to see is the work and the person. You can read a lot about the person from the way they do their work. So what you are looking for within a portfolio is evidence of an individual person. And when students graduate, each course will look for something specific. If we manage to do our work properly, students should have begun to understand where they might want to fit within the creative industries and they have begun to have confidence, to develop and to back their own ideas. So it is about having confidence in their practice, skills and imagination. And also I hope when they are successful, they have all understood how to learn because the learning does not stop when you finish college. Students need to know that if they want to try something different, they know how to start to learn about new situations.
Editor: Since nowadays we are trying to explore the possibility of collaboration between the teaching, research and enterprise. A question often asked is, what is the major objective of university education in design? Should it be vocational training or creativity for open and free designing? Do you think practical experience is the most important thing for the students who studied design?
Rapley: I think what is the most important is that universities, colleges decide what they want to do because our cultural and creative industries need all sorts of skills. In different industries, different companies, different cultural institutions, museums, galleries, they need different sorts of skills, so I don’t think any one education can just fit everybody’s requirements. So what universities need to do is to decide which place they are going to fill and therefore which student is going to benefit from what they have to offer. And what they offer may be different from another university. Industries get to know that for them, this university produces graduates that suit their business but another doesn’t. I think what you need to do in education is to decide how much you are going to cover, why you are doing something. You have to be as clear as you can to students coming in and you have to be as clear as you can for the industries which they are going to work in. So it’s about choices.
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