Student Council Q&A with the Rector, Paul Thompson, Pro-Rector Naren Barfield, and HR Director Margaret Bird on the departure of Heads of Programme

On the occasion of the fourth Student Council on March 19th, we invited the Rector, Paul Thompson, the Academic Pro Rector, Naren Barfield, and Margaret Bird, the Head of Human Resources, to attend a Q&A session with the student representatives, in which a range of issues were addressed, notably the resignation of a number of Heads of Programmes across the college.  Here’s what they had to say.

Introduction by the Students’ Union:

We have asked Paul, Naren, and Margaret to attend the Student Council today, in response to the announcement of departures from heads of programme and unfulfilled roles. This session will start with their statements, and then open to a Q&A.

Introduction Statement by Paul Thompson

Firstly, I know that for those of you who are on programmes where there is going to be a change of leadership, especiall if you are a first year, that it is obviously an unsettling experiecne. I’ve just been in a meeting now with a group of reps whose head is departing. But I want to put this in context:

Martin Smith (Head of Ceramics and Glass) is stepping down, but he has been here for 25 years. He is retiring, but staying as a research professor. There is no sense that Martin is leaving. He has taken Ceramics and Glass to the point of the Woo building, and he now wants to stand down from that role.

Clare Johnston (Head of Textiles) has been the head of programme since 1986 – She is retiring, but wants to continue following through a major research project for the upcoming years. There is no disgruntlement or unhappiness. They are not leaving the institution, just the role.

Tony Dunn (Head of Design Interactions) joined in 1991 – he has been head since 2005. We are very disappointed that Tony is leaving, we have made that clear through Aine Duffy (the Head of Communications & Marketing at the RCA) – Tony was one of the reasons I wanted to come to the college as a Rector. There is nothing to suggest that he and I have fallen out or I want him to go, but if you’ve been running a programme for 10 years about speculation, you dont want to feel that you are stuck in the ground. It is a real shame that Tony is leaving.

Ab Rogers (Head of Interior Design) is standing down because of his business – his studio is doing very well. There is no instance at all of him falling out with the RCA – being a visiting professor fits better with his flexibility.

While you may think – people keep resigning, the reason they are all timed now is that if you don’t hand your notice in now, it doesn’t give the college enough time to appoint someone new. Yes, it does look like there are resignations after resignations, but this is the open season for staff to give sufficient notice.

Naren’s Statement

Jeremy Myerson (Head of Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design) will be leaving us as well, after leaving HHCD he will remain half time with the centre.

The Head of Vehicle Design is still an ongoing search, and part of that is the attraction for candidates of working in the industry.

Director of Research and Innovation – we are close to a final selection on that, and it is different from the Director of Research role, but it is in progress.

Marquard Smith (Head of Critical and Historical Studies) has been offered a role as the head of school in another university. The Dean will take over some of his responsibilities, and the Dean has put into place another person to step up to that role.




1 – What are the checks and balances for dealing with the vacancies of those who are leaving now – from an HR and academic perspective?

PT – We have research consultants hired to work with us for filling all those roles, some are progressing further than others. We are past the search process into the selection process. With the others, we are just starting to meet with the key stakeholders. The headhunters will always meet with the student reps. Some of those discussions have begun and they will begin this and next week. Those of you who are student reps – you will be hearing from us shortly to meet with the headhunters.


2 – On the subject of the hiring process – it will be about 16-17 months from when Charles Walker (former Head of Architecture) announced his resignation to interviews starting. Are you happy with that as a timetable? (2nd year – Arch)

PT – Absolutely not – it is not acceptable to have a delay for that long.

NB – Charles gave very short notice – 3 months, when it normally needs to be done before Easter. That did not give us time to search. But it is absolutely too long.


3 – This returns to the question from before – when is the alarm raised that the appointment process is too late? (SU)

NB – Realistically, all job descriptions are out by May, but as an idea it doesn’t always happen that the right appointment is made by then, and so we extend the search process.

Arch Year 2 – So If people need to step down by May, then the person who needs to replace them also needs to resign at this point.

NB – Yes that is built into the time frame.

Arch Year 2 – The lack of organisation in the programme has been very detrimental to this year.

NB – Yes, we understand, but we have changed some of the college’s long-standing regulations to let senior tutors take over responsibilities, and now that should be the case.


4 – What is the college doing to allow Heads of Programme to use their time flexibly to be able to do their own research, and what is the massive expense of the headhunters going to come at the expense of, for example a new Head of Doctoral Studies? (DI Res)

PT – The huge demands placed on the Head of Programme aren’t because of the programme, but the leadership required. The days when someone would drift into the Senior Common Room and talk to a group of students and then drift off into their own studios are long gone. Being an academic is extremely rigorous. Making sure that we have extraordinary visiting professors and lecturers is the way that we balance – like Jeremy McGovern from Land Rover – that requirement. What we’ve been saying to Mila and Ritz (SU Co-presidents) and a number of their people is that the Director of Research and Innovation will have nothing to do with a research student.


5 – DI Res – We mean that for the roles that are not yet created, not that post specifically… 

NB – It is not a binary relationship between the cost of the headhunters and not sorting something out. Before, there was no college-wide PhD community. The current RMC course was designed only for 60-80 students. We looked at this at ASC this morning and we have asked them to reassess the research programme nationally, and we presented a structure of responsibilities to the SU. But the confusion is between what a supervisor provides, and the programme. The research office provides the RMC and oversees the enrollment and registration, not day to day contact as independent researchers. But with the growth of the programme, what we are looking at right now is the review to look at an overarching role, a role with an expertise for research programmes more broadly.


6 – I was wondering, the consultancy firm you were mentioning, what their expertise is, if its academia in general – because not every firm might have the understanding of the artistic desire to go into academia. (DI Year 2)

PT – We use many firms – but we are now using Perret Laver, the largest currently working in the higher education arts area, they’ve made appointments in universities from the roles of vice chancellor to senior tutor. But every time we do this we ask a number of headhunters to come in a pitch on their approach.

DI Year 2 – Has that been in place for a long time?

PT – About 4 years. We’ve tried it other ways but it didn’t work.

PT – I have a question for you – did the headhunters interview you as Architecture reps?

Arch Year 2 – Yes. The individuals that I met, and this is where the question might come from – they seemed completely inexperienced in what they were looking for. Both were very young, and asked us what is going on in architecture at the moment, for example. They asked if the RCA was a technical or artistic school – that was the depth of their questions. We weren’t privy to the number of people they were researching, but it wasn’t inspiring.

PT – That is concerning, because we do need to make sure.

DP Year 2 – I don’t know if these are the same headhunters that were used for DP last year, but for our senior tutors, when we mentioned names – they didn’t even know who Ron Arad or even bigger names were. Eventually what happened was that the two senior tutors chosen came with the Head of Programme, so the whole process seemed to be a waste.

NB – There are in fact 3 senior tutors – Jonathan Adelman was appointed from the US. Headhunters are meant to understand whom we want to find, but not the discipline necessarily. But for the names we suggest – they can contact them instead of us.


7 – DP Year 2 – How is it not possible to contact a candidate?

MB – Many of the candidates we attract are not actually on the job market. If a third party rings them up, they can draw them into a conversation. We definitely have candidates through that route. The expertise of these firms is in putting together the brief, and drawing together a list of names – usually 150 for any one of these searches – and will contact everyone. We deal with the senior person in that team but every search is a substantial task. Not everyone will see the most senior person. That is something we in the college don’t have the time or knowledge of to do.


8 – We haven’t had a HoP for the whole year, and I wonder if the salary that could have been used for the Head of School could have been used for our programme. Where is that money going? (Arch Year 2)

PT – It should be going to backlog the visiting lecturers. Rosie (visiting lecturer) should be coming in?

Arch Year 2 – No, she hasn’t been coming in.

PT – Well, that’s in the Dean’s budget to allot.


9 – When you were asked to be Rector of the school, were you on the market? (Arch Year 2)

PT – Yes.

Arch Year 2 – Would you have taken the role if someone from the college phoned you up, instead of a headhunter?

PT – The answer to that question is very personal. The role of the headhunters should be to create a picture of the ideal candidate for the role. It is mostly a research role.

NB – For example, we were also looking at CSM to recruit for fashion, so a headhunter could look for someone who could be compatible with our culture.


10 – For example, the head of Research Innovation – is there not a way that unpaid salary could have been used to appoint somebody to support us research students? (DI Res)

NB – Margaret and I have been discussing this and it’s a reasonable point. But then again it is a distinct role from the student experience.


11 – Is there a sort of timescale with which you approach the headhunters, and if the deadline isn’t met, how does that balance? (VisCom Year 2)

 MB – When we hire them, we will agree a draft timescale. All of the posts have draft timescales, which are the minimum amount of time. The more international you make it, the longer it needs to be. Once we get to the selection part that is under the control of the college to lead and participate in. With some of these appointment processes you are dealing with candidates who aren’t necessarily on the market so you have to be relatively elastic on dates. Its not an ordinary appointment – it is much more elastic.

PT – I really do apologise to you Architects that you have been without a head. What I want to do with the other programmes, currently without a Head, is to have an appointment process that is completely seamless so that we have someone on Oct 1. I also apologise to Vehicle Design, but unfortunately everyone we’ve approached has entered the industry instead, because of the recession. We are trying to see a second round of people.


12 – How much do the headhunters cost, because they have been searching for ages? (DI Year 2)

 MB/PT- It comes at a set fee – it is commercial and confident, so I can’t tell you, but it is a competitive rate. It is more expensive than putting an advert in the Sunday Times. And more expensive than doing it ourselves.

PT – The slowness of the Head of Arch has nothing to do with the Headhunters. You as students have to tell the headhunters what your expectations are, but anything that you can do that gives texture, nuance, lead, that is what you have to try and do. They act as researchers – and though their knowledge of the RCA isn’t great, their ability to research is.

DP Year 2 – I think this process didn’t work well for DP.

PT – I’m sorry, but remember, it isn’t set in stone. Sometimes you use the headhunters, and sometimes it still leads to an internal appointment, but you always have to look.


13 – What has caused the delay in the appointment for a Head of Architecture? Fingers crossed that you will find great people for all these places, but what is the plan if the college doesn’t find them in time for October? Is there a way that budgets can be re-directed toward the education? (Arch Year 2)

NB – The preference of the Dean of Architecture was not to rush the appointment. Alex’s preference was to go into an acting Head’s role and take his time over the appointment. We recognise that it has taken far too long. We have already made the changes so that if any programme was without a Head, our regulations allow us to ask a Senior Tutor to take on the Head’s responsibilities.


14 – We respect the decisions you’re making, but why cant you give us more transparency? There are questions about the headhunters because people don’t feel that senior management passed on the message in a transparent way. (Painting Year 2)

PT – I think we’ve been very transparent. We are meeting with the reps. Any programme without a Head who wants to meet with me, can do so. But the first port of call is the SLT. But by the time it comes to me it is a term out of date.

DP Year 1 – The appointment of heads should probably not be rushed into.

PT – Yes, when we interviewed for VD and the Head of Research we found nobody to be appropriate.

NB – We could do this a lot more quickly if we didn’t have the high standards. For example, with tech services, we go through an extensive process to get the right people. It is better not to rush.


15 – What happens if a Head is not found? If a senior tutor just takes over some of the part, it isn’t sufficient – for example, in our case, the Senior Tutor hasn’t directed the course. Can there not be an Interim Head? (Interior Design Year 1)

NB – The ideal scenario is that if we have someone by the 1st of October, but with Interim Heads, we find that it just stalls the programme. It’s preferable that the Senior Tutor, who knows the students, can take on the responsibilities.

Interior Design Year 1- By when will we know that there will not be a head for the beginning of the year?

MB – We are looking for final selection in May – that is the alarm bell.

Interior Design Year 1 – We know what happened in Architecture, and we don’t want that to happen to us.

PT – Ok, in May, to find an idea for an interim measure in case there is no appointment would be a great idea.


16 – With the number of posts, are you looking for a balance between the different programmes? I.e. is it part of a bigger strategic vision? (DI Research)

 NB – Each programme is a case-by-case basis. There is not a generic template. Our Heads are very diverse – some are very practice based, others are very academic.

PT – How much time can you give us? If someone comes along who is fantastic commercially. We were lucky with Zowie Broach, because she could commit to 4 days a week as well as running her practice. Its the time which is worrying – we don’t want someone to overextend themselves. Someone without the time should be a VL – but you get the continuity from a full time Head.

NB – The absolute worst student feedback I’ve seen came from stellar high profile Heads – but the problem was, they were never there.


17 – I’ve heard you are planning to increase the number of students, and I was wondering how this would affect the quality of the education? (DI Year 1)

 NB – The College is increasing because we want to introduce programmes that it doesn’t currently offer. The quality issue isn’t about lowering standards – it is that everyone who is here has to succeed in the entrance exam. There are far more students who want to come than can come. We do anticipate a bigger college – but also more diverse ranges of college.

DI Year 1 – But most of the expansion is coming from programmes that already exist.

NB – We’ve introduced only 4 new programmes in the last years, but it’s both.


18 – Can you let us know about your decision in 2009 to take up the position in the RCA? Don’t you think that the conditions of the RCA now are not enough to attract a big fish in terms of a candidate? (JAM Year 2)

PT – I was working in the world of design curation and for me this is and was the absolute fountainhead of creativity and practice. To be asked to put my hat in the ring was exciting. I was also moving from museums into higher education and that appealed to me. I was interested in moving into a different field – with the disciplines I knew. I don’t think there’s any problem with attracting people. The biggest problem is the cost of living in London. We find it difficult to relocate people to here from overseas.


19 – Regarding transparency – there is a lot of different information going around. With our staff, we knew that the money for the Head was still in the main RCA budget, which exactly contradicts what you just said. It would be good to iron out these facts. For example – where is the money going? Can we use it? (Arch Year 2)

PT – What can we do? It is causing a lot of unnecessary suspicion on either side. The word to push for is backfill – is this position being backfilled. We could go to the Dean and ask if there is a vacancy for this it needs to be backfilled. I was told that Rosie has been brought in to cover that position.


20 – Is the deadline of May to appoint the Head position applicable to all programmes? (C&G Year 1)

MB – Yes, we are looking to complete all of these appointments by the end of May.


21 – Do you think that having these open-ended positions is detrimental to the reputation of the RCA? (C&G Year 1)

MB – The wider world has only seen the search in the last couple of months.

PT – What I’ve learned from this meeting is that we should try to find the drop-dead dates, and instantly move into the second stop.

Aine Duffy, Head of Communications & Marketing – Yes, in terms of the Dezeen piece, ten years ago when Tony joined the programme, all hell was going to break loose, and people associate personality with a programme and expect the programme to expire without the leadership. But you do need new blood. Yes, we have been taken a bit of a bashing over the last week.

PT – The media is always going to be looking for a conspiracy theory, and we can’t be pushed around by something like Dezeen, but the RCA is bigger and broader than a blog. Tony has been here for 10 years, but the world will go on. We can’t chain people to being at the RCA.


22 – Should students and the media know about the RCA expansion plans? (DI Res)

 PT – The fact that the RCA is expanding is not confidential. There is a feeling in the student body that they’re no communication between students and staff. If the problem comes to me, it is far too late.

SU – it is true that information is going down to the students, but the suggestions don’t go back up and influence the decisions.

PT – I also get frustrated with the communication because sometimes I feel like a crack record. I feel that every Student representative meeting I say the same thing, but it doesn’t get through.


23 – Is there any support for department administrative aid?? (Painting Year 2)

 PT – The need for administrative support is not due to the staff, but to the processes. We are looking at better IT systems, at the moment everything is still analog. We have an incredibly antiquated registry system and finance system. In 12 months time we hope it will be seamless. We agree that there is too much paperwork.

Painting 2 – We just wanted to suggest that administrators are the best commmunicators if you want to put a message across.


24 – There was mention in the emails that were circulating about continuing the curriculum for current students, in case their head leaves. But how would that be structured? How could that momentum of the former curriculum structure keep going? (DI Year 1)

NB – According to our regulations, you get the programme you signed up for. You come in here on a particular handbook and curriculum. The Head has to be able to deliver the current curriculum and provide a sense of their vision. We don’t want them to drop a new vision on you. It is a slow procedure, with consultation with reps, and if there are changes proposed, they need to be slowly implemented. In Design Products, for example, we have a new Head and new ideas for the content. But we sent it back because it was insufficient.


25 – Are there any other heads stepping down? (DI Res)

 PT – Not that we know of.


26. Is there any update about a Head of Research? Our former Head of Research in Architecture had complained about the stress of the workload… and it is getting urgent. (Arch Year 2)

MB – I would be happy to build better channels with the reps to keep people up to date with the appointments.

AD – And just to remind everyone, the Tech Services Newsletter is there to pull together the information for the entire college to send to students.

PT – I don’t understand at a programme level what isn’t getting transmitted. I think perhaps we need heads of programme newsletters.

DI Year 2 – We are also concerned about the transparency of budgets.

AD – We had a chat about the Internal Communications Newsletters, so I propose that SU and the reps and communications talk about what kind of information we want and need. I need a clear idea of what kind of information you will require that isn’t so specific, that is for the student body, and begin communicating in a clearer manner. When you drill down to programme level, you still need to have overall college information.

Action Points of the Meeting

  1. For HR to share the timetable for the hiring of the new heads with the student reps.
  2. To create a communications newsletter with the involvement of the SU and Communications and Marketing.
  3. To create a drop dead date for head of programme appointments – if we haven’t found a candidate by May, the immediate action is to appoint a Senior Tutor as the acting Head of Programme.
  4. Students will liaise with the Headhunters in the hiring process of their new heads of programme, and give feedback about their experience.


It was a great meeting with the Rector, and many thanks to our guests and our reps for attending.

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