RCA Action Group Statement of Support

Calling All Fellow RCA Students, Staff & Alumni.

The RCA Action group & RCA staff in the UCU (University and College Union) are putting forward a vote of no confidence in the senior management of the RCA. 
We demand this positive change for the college, and that our voices are included within management going forward.

Our objections split into 3 themes:

1. The Erosion of Teaching Provision and Reckless Treatment of Staff at the RCA.

2. The RCA is Institutionally and Systematically Racist

3. The Deterioration of the Student Experience at the RCA.

Call to action: Sign & show your support.

A 1 Page Summary of the letter can be seen here and a version of the statement with footnotes and references can be found here.

Introduction to our Vote of No Confidence

We all, including paid staff, buy into the promise of the RCA as an excellent institution and we are being lied to.  It’s reputation, history and it’s future are all sources of inspiration to us, and when we contribute to this we expect to be listened to and shown some appreciation.  We are ultimately the lifeblood of the college.  But when we arrive and time passes, many of us find a catalogue of disappointing practises with no sign of change.

We’ve been forced to question why the college is ‘No.1 in the world’. Many of us coming from other well run-institutions know that the statement does not match up with our experience.  We’ve looked at the raw data and collected stories from individuals across the college. We understand the scale of the problem, and can see how toxic the situation has become.

Management have had multiple chances to show they can change yet time and time again we are greeted with indifference. Staff and students are treated as numbers rather than given a voice, and action is rarely taken seriously.  This strategy cannot be sustained.  We demand a public institution that is transparent and fair. This is the time for a positive change within the senior management, a shift in attitudes and a clearer definition of our shared principles going forward. Our vision is of an RCA that is practical, honest and democratic.

The RCA action group has used sources to build its case including:

  • UCU Surveys – (Teachers union)
  • RCA Simplified Accounts: 10 Year overview. (Compiled using publicly available data from RCA website)
  • RCA Action Group Findings – (Self initiated surveys sent out to students)
  • Personal Testimonials (Accounts from staff, students and alumni.)
  • Summary of Facilities – (Filled out by RCA students)
  • Evidence from Official Student Body (RCA Student Union & Student Reps)

Theme 1
Erosion of Teaching Provision and Reckless Treatment of Staff at the RCA

Oversubscribed courses.  Fewer permanent staff.  Tutors overburdened with work.  Low pay.  Does this sound like the no.1 Art & Design institution in the world?  We are not mistaken in believing that despite the tutors best efforts, they are fighting a tough battle at the RCA. 

The numbers speak for themselves. Our main points are listed below:

  • Student to staff ratio has doubled. 10 years ago, there were around 3 students to every permanent tutor, this is now 6 to everyone. Not only do permanent staff have better employment rights, we believe a permanent role gives tutors more confidence, time and resources to support postgraduate courses. The culture of hiring and firing visiting lecturers has become the status quo and this is not conducive to building a healthy academic environment. 
  • The College has announced a hiring freeze and sweeping cuts. This will mean 200-400 hourly paid (VL) lecturers who make up the majority of staff may not be working there next year. Remaining staff will be dealing with the same numbers of incoming students, leading to an increased workload. This will worsen the already deteriorating student conditions.
  • The RCA was shown to be the No.1 employer of casualised staff with 90% of those teaching on insecure contracts. In response the management said they would work with the local branch to make necessary changes. Instead our only union rep was made redundant. With the RCA UCU branch effectively non existent, in 2018 they moved all hourly paid lecturers’ off contracts of employment and onto ‘terms of engagement’. This stripped these lecturers of employment rights and put them on zero hour ‘worker’ contracts. No one was consulted on this change.
  • Conditions at the college are worsening. An increased student intake meant lecturers workloads were becoming unmanageable. One UCU member had 14 PhD students while running and teaching on MAs. Furthermore the college payroll was struggling meaning some lecturers were not paid for up to three months. Additionally while the college focused on new building projects its existing estates failed to provide adequate heating and appropriate conditions to teach in with some classes being taught in the canteen or corridors.
  • Staff are stressed, overstretched and taking part in strikes to raise their concerns. A 2019 staff survey showed 95% of staff were stressed at work and 82% did not trust the management of the college to plan for the future. Under these conditions they took part in the 2020 UCU strike. 90.41% voted in favour of industrial action on a 72.55% turn out.
  • Testimonies suggest that teaching at the RCA wasn’t always like this. Even students from a few years ago suggested a more balanced approach to student & staff numbers:

    “I graduated MA 2014 – Course numbers were capped to c.22 students per year in Design Interactions. We had 5 permanent tutors for the course, our own technician and our own administrator. As well as many visiting tutors who would work on specific projects with us. We also had our own equipment and resources that didn’t have to be shared with other courses.”
    Amina, Alumni from MA Design Interactions

We can see that across many aspects of the college, the RCA senior management has sidelined teaching, slimming down provision and pushing teachers to breaking point, both emotionally and financially. This sorry state of affairs of course is intimately linked with a lowering in quality of the student experience; a theme we will cover later in this summary.

Theme 2
The RCA is Institutionally and Systematically Racist

Recent events surrounding Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the inequality and prejudice that people of African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, First Nations and Indigenous heritage face. At the RCA the challenges they face are no different, and although the college portrays itself as a beacon of opportunity for these communities, it has shown repeatedly that it is not tackling the issue in a meaningful way. This must change.

The UCU has recently taken the initiative of raising this issue of racism with an open letter and call to action which has been gathering widespread support, with over 750 signatures already. The RCA action group believes the evidence and demands put forward in this letter accurately reflect the opinions of students, tutors and alumni that have attended the college. Not only this, but rooting out systematic racism in the college is of paramount importance to improving both the lived experience of anyone working or studying at the RCA.

Our concerns include but are not limited to the following:

  • We strongly oppose the person newly appointed to ‘Head of Inclusion’ (Mark Harrison) due to deep failings in the way this role has been framed and the rigour of the recruitment process. We know, thanks to the testimonies of staff and students of African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, First Nations and Indigenous heritage, that the Royal College of Art has for generations fostered a hideous culture of overt and insidious systemic racism. This systemic racism has been normalised, reproduced and experienced by students and staff at every level of the institution, in a myriad of ways. This toxic culture of systemic racism continues and is upheld by the Vice-Chancellor’s Office under the leadership of Paul Thompson, through actions such as this latest ‘Head of Inclusion’ appointment. Thus, this toxicity continues to trickle down and be reinforced throughout the institution.
  • Advice from the Equality & Diversity Committee was not taken on board in relation to this appointment and shows the college are cherry picking the counsel they receive. In only the latest example of this, in February 2020, African, Caribbean, and Asian heritage members of the Equality and Diversity (ED) Committee gave a presentation to the committee. The presentation was the result of months of unpaid, extra-contractual, physically and emotionally intensive work, researching the state of systemic racism in the UK and locating the RCA’s position within this. This research was done through analysing policy, documentation and statistics, and through collecting testimonies from RCA students and staff who had experienced the effects of this systemic racism directly and first-hand. It was found that the RCA “falls in line with or behind many of the findings of Race, Racism & Racial Harassment” and was stated that “We need to make an active push to change our culture if we aim to truly strive for diversity in recruitment and attainment of staff and students, and create an environment of intersectional care and respect.

    The very first goal was a call for the RCA to employ “a permanent, full-time Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officer(s) – with personal experience of being on the receiving end of systemic racism – to oversee a full investigation into the experiences of BAME staff and students (with a view to widen such research in an intersectional way) and to have the findings written up.”

    It is stated in the ‘15 June 2020: Weekly message from the Vice-Chancellor’ that this recruitment decision “is a step the Vice Chancellor’s Office took following the welcome advice of the current SU Presidents and the Equality & Diversity Committee”. This statement is a mischaracterisation of the explicit recommendations of the committee, whilst using the work of the ED Committee to legitimate this recruitment choice.
  • The RCA is failing to employ people from diverse ethnic groups. Despite the RCA’s obscene public admission that “white applicants were almost twice as likely to be appointed to an RCA role than a BME applicant” (RCA Annual Equality Report 2018/19), the institution claims that it is “committed to addressing racism and the systemic barriers which marginalised communities experience”. Recruiting for the ‘Head of Inclusion’ position was a perfect opportunity to provide more than lip service to this cause.

    Despite members of HR and the Vice-Chancellor’s Office being involved in the ED Committee presentation mentioned above, it was announced as the presentation was completed that the position, then entitled ‘Head of Equality and Diversity’ had been open for four days and was shutting the next day. Notwithstanding, research presented to the ED Committee showed that recruiters had previously expressed that they did not know where to advertise to find potential Black and Brown staff. None of the African, Caribbean or Asian ED Committee members were informed of the position being open with enough time to share it with their networks, which undoubtedly are full of qualified candidates.
  • This chain of events presents as an explicit declaration by the Royal College of Art as an institution, and by the Vice-Chancellor’s Office that they do not listen to nor value the voices of their African, Caribbean, Asian, Middle Eastern, First Nations and Indigenous heritage staff and students, and that the Vice-Chancellor’s Office does not genuinely intend to dismantle systemic racism at the RCA. It presents as a declaration that the content of the ‘15 June 2020: Weekly message from the Vice-Chancellor’ was purely to present a public façade of solidarity in the fight against systemic racism, while actively working through their operations to make the situation worse. Most importantly, it presents as a dismissal of the horrific treatment of African, Caribbean, Asian, Middle Eastern, First Nations and Indigenous heritage staff and students at the RCA – as was shown in the testimony given to the ED Committee and will be shown in testimony given below this letter – and an explicit demonstration of the institution’s true stance on systemic racism. We, the undersigned, are acting to expose this truth publicly. We will not allow the RCA or the Vice-Chancellor’s Office to continue to propagate an artificial narrative.
  • Student & staff testimonies show that both casual, endemic and deeper seated racism exists across the college. Many of these accounts are now being publicly posted in solidarity with those not confident enough to come forward. This is unacceptable in a 21st century public institution.
  • The RCA response to students withholding fees due to the COVID-19 situation demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity to students from international or vulnerable backgrounds. Students faced with finance or visa issues were treated with contempt and some ejected from their courses, and threatened to refer them to the Home Office if their fees are not paid — a ruthless tactic which could result in them being deported in the middle of a global pandemic.

These stark examples of how the senior management at the RCA is not tackling racism, and is tone deaf to the scale of the problem. Ignoring well researched advice on how to change. Lying about taking this advice seriously.  Virtue signalling on its commitment to equality despite clearly still favouring ethnicities in their appointments of office. Intimidating students whilst they are at their most vulnerable. Perhaps most damaging of all, is the evidence emerging from testimonials regarding racism they personally have experienced at the college.  This insidious truth poisons the atmosphere in which students and staff exist. The effect is an unstable, unwelcoming environment for many at the RCA. Casual, systemic and institutional racism must can only be eradicated through opening meaningful dialogue, change in management and fresh leadership.

Theme 3:
Deterioration of the Student Experience at the RCA

More students. Less permanent staff. Limited space.  Dysfunctional new buildings. Poor handling of COVID-19 crisis.  Lying about adequacy of courses.  Intimidating vulnerable students. The RCA senior management has consistently shown how out of touch it is with its students and their needs. As we all have witnessed, the college is growing rapidly. New buildings and grand projects are being developed, the resulting spaces often inadequate and illogical. At the same time, older ones have fallen into disrepair without much concern. Whilst the RCA’s ambition to expand has brought excitement and a new drive for donations and investment, the college has managed the transition and growth extremely poorly.  Current students have been neglected, with their own courses often oversubscribed, their studios lacking in space, and tutors under unprecedented pressure to keep up.

Starting in March 2020, there was an extensive back and forth email chain between students and tutors, which documented many of the grievances. The UCU Strikes that happened in this period, which many students supported, was a source of massive disappointment to the student body. Why is the No.1 institution in our sector involved in staff disputes in the first place?

As we have suspected, a similar attitude has been taken to students. Our concerns are not taken seriously, and their expectations of the college lowering all the time. The COVID-19 response, whilst understandably a huge challenge for the college, has given the senior management many opportunities to treat students fairly. It has failed on many fronts miserably. Knowing this, and seeing the direction that the college is moving towards, we believe management has proven that we need a change. Our evidence for this is summarised below:

  • The college spends almost 20% less on average per student than it did in 2009/10. A common excuse for less spending on students is that with less funding from the government, which whilst true to some extent does not tell the whole story. What is more important is that the college’s overall income has increased by 159.4% in the same period, with income from tuition fees alone up 450.3%.
  • Both new & existing facilities are being poorly managed. New buildings are too small to accommodate staff numbers and students. White City has been a particularly catastrophic venture for the RCA, with students widely claiming the space is not up to scratch. This has been raised at multiple SU meetings. At White City, testimonials cite a severe lack of space, some students with none at all and inconsiderate approaches to organising spaces.
  • Student Union representatives and the Student body have almost no influence on senior management, with suggestions and motions consistently ignored.  We are also lied to, being told that our advice is taken into consideration when making decisions. The COVID-19 crisis is an example where management has failed to take on board student concern.  The initial refusal to plan a future physical show for 2020 graduates was a case in point.
  • A failure to admit that due to the COVID-19 crisis, courses are no longer adequate but still insisting that we should pay the same fees. An official complaint against the college, led by the RCA Action group is fighting this absurd notion. The claim proves to us how deluded the management is in relation to our academic study, and how little they understand the nature of practise based academia across RCA courses. A case study for MA Design Products that calculated the cost of accessing basic external workshop facilities showed how unrealistic this statement was. To further demonstrate the contrast since college shut down, students from across the college have listed what tools and expertise they can no longer access. It is also likely that RCA students have a legal claim to make for compensation, under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 if the complaint is not dealt with internally.
  • Poor treatment of students during COVID-19 crisis, leading to a deflated and unhappy cohort. In particular, international students and financially vulnerable students that have been treated with contempt, often being intimidated into paying fees. This goes against the claim on their website that during the COVID crisis that they will “…support our students and staff at this time of great uncertainty.” Surveys have shown that students believe the RCA handling of the crisis has impacted them negatively across the board, both in their work, wellbeing, anxieties about the future and their opinion of the college.
  • Other colleges of similar quality, relative size and approach have proven that solidarity and care can be shown to students. For example, ECAL, in Switzerland, a college that charges significantly less to students, has refunded students due to loss of access to facilities. It has also promised extended access to technical support in workshops for those that have lost out. RCA is more than capable of making concessions of this kind.
  • RCA Senior Management have demonstrated they see our courses as flexible, with studio practice, a central tenet of our work as a disposable feature when it suits them. ‘Studio practice’ is a phrase used across college and ‘physical techniques’ are referred to in many of our course curriculums. The majority of courses regard it as a crucial component to learning within Art & Design. Some of the more practical courses, it would be near impossible to execute without facilities. Senior management does not appear to agree, and many of us are concerned that this will justify further reductions in facilities going forward. The RCA’s Terms and Conditions reflect this, with changes to courses at any moment now deemed acceptable. This goes against what we believe enables RCA students to create world leading, tangible work that is made within collaborative spaces. We believe it to be possible to stay up to date with modern digital advances, whilst respecting and protecting traditional working methodologies. Practises which paved the way to success for the RCA.

We can see that across the board, students have had to deal with everything from poor strategic decisions to intimidating behaviour that one wouldn’t expect from a publicly funded institution and certainly not from a registered charity. Not only this but the preceding themes compound the negative experience of students. Contempt shown for teaching and failure to act over institutional racism at the college exacerbate student issues, and further expose senior management as not being currently fit for purpose going forward.

Conclusion & the Future

RCA Students, the RCA Action Group, the RCA student Union, RCA tutors & UCU members and RCA Alumni, agree that there is a positive alternative and solution to the mess that the college is in. These groups are embedded in the history and part of the future of the college, yet at the moment their influence in current decisions is marginal.  They have now lost faith in the senior management and their ability to steer the college in a positive direction. We fear that events of the recent past are signs of what is to come for the college. Staff and students will invariably have to bear the brunt of the ongoing squeezed budgets, misjudged priorities and questionable decision making that has been evidenced here.

The problems that the RCA face are both chronic and acute. The systemic and long term failures have been built slowly over many years. Whether this is the erosion of teaching provision, failure to robustly tackle institutional racism or a neglect of the student experience, we are now at a crossroads. Some issues have quick fixes. Admitting that courses have not been adequate and students should receive compensation would be the very least the college could do in terms of action. But this alone would not be enough. Approaching the problem in this way is the equivalent of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic moments before it sank. 

To enable genuine change, RCA senior management must be dismantled and rebuilt. Appointing fresh talent throughout the college is a necessary remedy.  The college must better represent the ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations of the student cohort and wider populace. It must also better represent the views and ambitions of people working in the very industries that the RCA alumni interact with. One way this can be done is by creating a board of advisors made up of elected ex-staff members and ex-students who have influence and the ability to veto management decisions. This would allow scrutiny upon the entire college and the way it operates. These advisors would be accountable, and crucially informed by personal experiences within the college. The true ‘Generation RCA’ that the student body wants and that the college so badly needs. 

Declaration to Stand with RCA Students

If you have read this Vote of No Confidence, and one of the following applies to you then stand with us (this can be done anonymously): 

  • If you agree with, support and believe that the evidence given here reflects your own sentiment, sign this letter.
  • If you have read this and realise that change should happen, please sign this letter.
  • If you read this, agree with the majority and wish to open a meaningful dialogue, please sign this letter.

Actions – Please Sign!
  1. Sign and show your support here on change.org.
    (Can be signed anonymously if so select this as an option)
  2. Share this open letter with fellow students, staff or alumni.  Please share any of our media assets too.

We have a chance to change the RCA now, and better prepare it for future generations. Sign and share to show your support.

Yours faithfully,
RCA Action Group
July 2020

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