Profile: Paul Thompson

Ten years into his tenure as the Royal College of Art’s vice-chancellor, Paul Thompson tells Paddy Smith what the future of creative HE might look like

Paul Thompson – CV

Name: Dr Paul Thompson

Establishment: The Royal College of Art

Job title:

Oxford 1959

BA, University of Bristol, 1977–80; MA and PhD, University of East Anglia, 1983–1987

Career highlight: Securing a one-off £54m grant in the chancellor’s Spring Budget 2016 for the RCA’s strategic vision and campus expansion

What would you have done if not education? Stay in the museum sector

Best leadership advice: Recruit a leadership team with superior skills and intellect to my own

Paul Thompson gestures beyond the building site. “That’s Norman Foster, this is Vivienne Westwood,” he motions to a couple of buildings visible from a south London balcony. “We’ve got a fantastic creative industries little quarter going on.”

Below us, hi-vis jacketed workers and large plant machinery are shaping the site of the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) Battersea campus expansion while Thompson sketches out the new development’s layout with a few waves of his hand. A few days before our interview, Prince Charles was on this personal tour. 

A few days afterwards universities minister Chris Skidmore is due. Thompson’s pride in the project and what it means for the 182-year-old university is palpable.

A new era

The new building, next to the “big functional sheds” that are the Dyson Building and the Woo Building replaces and expands the old sculpture building, a grotty edifice that “opened without any ladies’ loos” and was a general eyesore on the Battersea Bridge Road. Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the Battersea expansion is part of a £108m investment programme the RCA describes as the most radical transformation of the campus in its history.

“It’s a big deal for us. It’s the biggest building we’ve ever built in our 182 years. For us it’s a big deal.  But I went to look at a new building in Sheffield called the Diamond which is comparable in scale. And it’s the sort of thing they do on a Wednesday afternoon, but for us it’s a big deal. It is a very, very big deal.”

Thompson waves his arm over the railing again. “This is our new emporium. All along here will be four storeys of teaching and learning, and then over in the corner is a much higher tower building which will be for research, InnovationRCA and knowledge-exchange activity, so goals two and three of the stategic plan.”

It’s a plan that moves the RCA from one era to the next. “I think the old ethos of the RCA was very much post-war British art school. I think the new RCA is very much about being a 21st-century art and design university. So it’s retaining the ethos, the heritage of the 1960s through the 1990s, but it’s actually saying as well as the beautiful, the handmade, the haptic, the messy business of making, which is what we do there [his hand takes in a workshop floor] it’s also about the tech and the software design and the coding work that many of the young entrepreneurs in InnovationRCA that came out of the RCA are working on.”

The RCA incubator

InnovationRCA is the RCA’s start-up incubator. The programme will be moving to the new building once it’s completed. It offers investment injections, introductions, business coaching, tools and workspace to alumni who want to take their ideas to market. “The interview process is pretty rigorous because it’s not just the product which is typically quite raw, quite a raw stage of development, we’re really looking hard at the team and we might well say that we think the idea’s great but the team just does not look as if you guys are going to survive together for a weekend let alone five years, three years. We like to say to them, go and borrow a business partner from Imperial Business School, pair up with an MBA, we might say you really could do with some help in productionising; you need a design engineer. So we might make those sort of suggestions but it’s the team that is scrutinised by people from investors, the investment community, designers, engineers, our own staff, the faculty from the schools. And we have a very high application rate.”

The shadow of Silicon Valley looms large, not least in the incubator model so prevalent in Californian start-up culture. The architect describes the new building as being “at the intersection of science and arts”. It’s spookily close to Steve Jobs’ “intersection of technology and the liberal arts”. Perhaps it’s the influence of Jobs protege and Apple chief design officer Jony Ive who, as of last year, is the RCA’s chancellor?

As well as the beautiful, the handmade, the haptic, the messy business of making, it’s also about the tech

Pitch shifting

But Thompson rebuts the suggestion. “It wasn’t Jony Ive and Apple that made me think to do this, I can tell you exactly what it was. It was actually meeting a student who had done a PhD and a master’s here in design products and he had created a product called Seaboard and it’s a music tech product. It allows you to play the piano, which is effectively a percussive instrument – you hit the thing – and it allows you to bend the pitch of the note in the same way that you can with a stringed instrument. And this guy is an exceptional individual. He’s called Roland Lamb. He’d done his first degree in Sanskrit at Harvard, he loved jazz piano playing and he’d come to do design products at the RCA. How on earth did he get into the RCA with no product design or electrical engineering background? Those are the sort of people we love to find.

“I said to him, ‘Okay, you’ve designed something that is very, very technical – it’s very driven by computer science. How did you get on?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, after about six weeks of work, I’d pretty much exhausted all of my tutors’ knowledge of coding so I was kind of on my own.’ Now you could say that’s a very, very good thing because it forces an individual to go out there and find and build and create themselves, and I’m all for that kind of hungry, acquisitive can-do attitude, but it’s quite a risk in an education setting and it suddenly made me think: why have we not got a better base in our faculty of computer science/coding? We have to connect the late 20th-century art-craft bit to some heavy scientific underpinning.

“We’re not moving into the territory of being a science university, it would be crazy to think we could ever be Imperial. We wouldn’t want to be. But there are certain areas of scientific endeavour and work which really could benefit from the creative insights of a designer or an artist so we picked material science and computer science and again the material science thing came away. I was looking at a lot of students here whether in textiles or product design who were coming up with amazing things very serendipitously, creating new materials – typically biopolymers – and they didn’t really know quite what they were doing. 

And it seemed to me to be a bit of shame not to accelerate that process by actually bringing in a material scientist to help them understand what they were trying to do and make that a swifter journey for them.”

The incubator project capital is fuelled by Mark Esiri of Venrex Investment Management, who is in the process of increasing his RCA fund from £2m to £3m and who earmarks investors’ management fees to pay for the running costs of InnovationRCA. 

The Treasury is so impressed at the success of the programme (from which 80% of companies are still running five years after launch) it wrote the RCA a cheque for £54m for the new building, based on the provider’s commitment to doubling the size of the scheme.

Curator to VC

Thompson did not start out in HE. Having studied at the University of Bristol and University of East Anglia, he worked for the design council before moving to what would become the Design Museum. “I couldn’t miss the opportunity to go and work from the ground up, or before the ground had even been broken, on a new museum of industrially designed everyday objects with all the attendant excitement of what that would mean for London to have its first Conran-founded, privately funded museum.”

Having worked his way “up the curatorial ladder” to become director, he travelled to New York to head up Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum. Then the RCA “came along” and Thompson “couldn’t resist the opportunity of moving from dead objects to living people”. He started in 2009.

“It was just after the 2008 crash, just at the moment when the RCA and the HE sector in the UK was moving into the world of Lord Brown’s review. David Willetts tripling the fees. So all the change and disruption to what had been a fairly benign environment for the sector for the past 20 years.”

Although it was his first dive into the deep end of higher education, Thompson is keen to impress that museums are very much part of the education pool. During his time at Cooper Hewitt, he spend a lot time building education programmes “in areas you would never associate with a Manhattan-based museum”. 

There were projects with first-generation Latino communities in rural Texas, rebuilding schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, community work in the rust belt of north Massachusetts. “One of the things I really wanted to do when I was at Cooper Hewitt was recognising that any museum was four walls. It’s a very circumscribed physical envelope but what one can do in terms of impact nationally through education programmes is massive.”

We might say, we think the idea’s great but the team just does not look as if you guys are going to survive together for a weekend let alone five years

And the RCA? “I knew a lot about the RCA because I’d been doing exhibitions about contemporary design and it’s very difficult not to come across an RCA alumn when you’re in the design museum world because as soon as you start looking at subjects or objects for monographs or exhibitions so many roads come back to the RCA, so I thought ‘this is going to be an amazing opportunity – let’s go for it’.”

Small is agile

The RCA is, in university terms, tiny and specialised. There are other art schools and conservatoires of comparable size, but they lack its punch. A HEFCE report in 2015 said the RCA had produced a higher quantity of successful university-financed start-ups than any other university, more than Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial – combined. It has been ranked the world’s leading art and design university for five years straight by QS. In 2019 second place was taken by University of the Arts London, which has a student body more than eight times larger. Also in the top 10 is the Polytechnic University of Milan, which has 20 times the number.

“It’s much easier for a small institution to be agile,” Thompson admits. “I mean, I hope it’s easier for us to be agile. It’s my job to make sure and remind ourselves and it shouldn’t be difficult. Where it gets difficult is where you’re dealing with transnational projects and you’re trying to align your quality assurance with their quality assurance, and their credits with your credits and what’s a learning outcome and what’s… you know, putting those pieces together is quite fiddly but it is not insurmountable.

There must be things that are easier for large universities? “Resources. You can throw people and money at a project in a way you can’t if you’re a small institution.”

While Thompson’s office is in the RCA’s flagship Kensington campus near the Royal Albert Hall, he clearly knows his students, another benefit of the university’s size. He stops to introduce a potter from Stoke-on-Trent, a ceramicist from Falmouth.

“There’s a really interesting student over there,” he says, pointing out a Maltese man hunched over a laptop. “He’s hacked a 3D printing ceramic machine to create these really beautiful designs, which I think are really interesting. I brought the Prince of Wales around the RCA the other day. He’s our new patron. And we thought, do we show him 3D printing in ceramic modern art? And we though yeah, come on let’s do it. He loved it, he loved the fact that it was hacked. The guy had actually gone into the machine and changed the program on it and was creating some fairly random pathways.”


Thompson is an advocate of the individual, and a leader in the STEM to STEAM movement, an expression coined by Rhode Island School of Design’s John Maeda. “When I was at Cooper Hewitt, John said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to do something about this obsession with STEM to the detriment of art’. And he was a trustee of mine at Cooper Hewitt. And he enlisted me as one of his, I think more than a foot soldier but a lieutenant to him to try to push this agenda through particularly local senator support in New York and Rhode Island to try to get people to understand that actually it shouldn’t be either/or. It’s got to be both/and.”

So politicians shouldn’t endorse STEM, or the trend to study for employment? “I think it’s absolutely fantastic that people are flocking to maths and physics at A-level. I think it would be really, really bad for us in terms of our scientific literacy and our numeracy if we ended up with just a bunch of arts and humanities graduates like me. Having said that, I think it’s a great shame that modern languages are now regarded as vulnerable and undesirable subjects at university so what I’m going to obviously say is that I believe in the plurality of the system.

“It’s not wise to force somebody to study something that they don’t necessarily want to or are likely to succeed at. So I think everybody should be allowed to study what is their chosen vocation and their path and I think simply instrumentalising everything with the LEO [Longitudinal Education Outcomes] data into ‘what degree should I do that could lead to a salary of this level?’ is not a great way to think about education and I actually don’t think it’s very good for the economy because what’s happened I think with this overemphasis on STEM to the detriment of STEAM, or the detriment of arts and humanities, is we’re sort of forgetting the fastest-growing sector of the UK economy which is the creative industries. We do not want to turn around and find we’ve got a skills shortage in the creative industries because that industry is worth £93bn a year. It’s comparable to the financial services sector. It’s something we’re good at, it’s something we’ve been good at for a very, very long time and I think governments when they get it right recognise that we have to look at a diversification of sectors and we can’t just beat the drum that everybody’s got to go into biotech or everybody’s got to go into engineering, otherwise you’ll become over-reliant on one profession. Or we’ll produce a glut of, you know, chemical engineers or a glut of mathematicians.”

We have to connect the late 20th-century art-craft bit to some heavy scientific underpinning

But that’s a process that starts in schools? “There is nothing to stop you doing maths, maths, maths, further maths and Italian, knowing that you want to be a medic. And actually I have a nephew who went down that route and was not allowed to do Italian and it’s timetabling. We tell people, first of all, that there has to be a fork in the road, and it’s much easier to keep timetabling those different cohorts, which I think is very foolish. It’s basically laziness on the part of schools because it’s a timetabling nightmare. That’s what it is.”

And the English Baccalaureate [Ebacc]? “I think my concern with Ebacc is the way that it has marginalised the creative arts. The idea that it’s a non-essential, non-core I think has been very damaging and could be very damaging if you’re looking at the pipeline of talent into the creative industries.”

A cauldron of skill

The conversation comes back to Roland Lamb, inventor of the note-bending keyboard, and the particular thrill Thompson derives from finding unusual applicants in his intake. “I was talking to a design engineer here at the RCA who had come from reading physics at Oxford – absolutely fantastic, we love it. But it’s also fantastic as I’ve said when we get someone [Lamb] who goes down the tech route who did Sanskrit at Harvard. What I think is great about the RCA, because it’s postgraduate and it is a rather special place, is that it does tend to attract very, very interesting, gifted individuals from very, very different backgrounds. We have 75 different nationalities coming to a particular melting pot. 

It’s quite interesting: I was talking to some people at Pixar in California and they were saying they would die to get some of the animators that we have here in their working ranks because they do not have the diversity in the typical places where they hunt for talent. They don’t get 75 nationalities, they don’t have people who can do stop-frame and are born digital. They just never see that kind of individual come through their talent searches.”

That has also driven the expansion – in courses, in student numbers – Thompson has pushed for at the RCA. “We’re expanding because new knowledge, design and fine art are areas where the boundaries are moving and shifting all the time. We haven’t yet closed down a course but if you think of the way the world has changed just in the past 10 years, and that schoolchildren are now learning coding and most of the product designers here are looking at digital-physical interfaces, they’re not just looking at a beautifully crafted physical object. And if you look at fashion designers now. At RCA they are the biggest users, I’m told, of virtual reality headsets and they’re looking at more and more immersive augmented realities as a way to present their work. 

So one can’t just stand still. You’ve got to keep moving. New knowledge is like a shark: as soon as it stops it [he pauses, perplexed] don’t sharks sink or something like that?

“One of the things that struck me when I started at the RCA was that we are at the cutting edge of knowledge and new knowledge creation but we hadn’t introduced a new programme at master’s level since 1992. And if you think what’s happened in the world between 1992 and 2009 – we’ve discovered that climate change is very, very likely linked to human activity. We’ve discovered something called the internet and ‘the digital’ and we’ve experienced new levels of mass migration that we haven’t seen since the end of the second world war and those big global shifts were not really recognised within the curricula that we were teaching. We were teaching subjects that we’re still teaching now, that we’d been teaching in the ’50s.

“And that’s great, that fantastic. We haven’t closed down ceramics but we definitely had a deficit, I think, that I discerned, so we now have programmes in
digital directing, we have a programme which is basically storytelling in new media, we have now got a programme called environmental architecture, we have a number of new programmes like global innovation design which tries to teach engineers to be globally equipped to work in different economic and social contexts around the globe. It’s playing catch-up in a period of about nine years, and we have more programmes that we want to launch. We’ll bring in robotics, we’ve brought in a new programme called contemporary art practice which was not an art programme that was based on a particular media that basically said we’re not interested in the medium, we’re much more interested in you as an artist and allowing you to explore different media to work in.”

High performance

Despite the desire to grow, there must be a cachet in having a prestige brand and limited intake? 

We appeal to people who have got fire in their belly, hunger, desire for change

“We have been described by one article in Harvard Business Review as ‘high performing’ over generations. Looking at organisations that have consistently, decade after decade, performed at a very high level. It’s us, RADA and the All Blacks and Royal Marines – slightly strange bedfellows.”

The RCA is drawing ever better talent, even with what Thompson describes humorously as a financial “disincentive”. The appeal is generous research leave allocation, well-resourced labs and healthy department budgets, but also curiosity. “We appeal to people who have got fire in their belly, hunger, desire for change. People are really interested in going out into uncharted territory and doing something different, probably quite high risk for them in terms of which ref board are they going to be assigned or aligned to if they come to the RCA for five years. It’s people who are curious about what a creative arts institution like the RCA is.”

It’s working. Thompson reels off some of the new recruits. Alexandria Smith is on board as head of painting, Sina Sareh joins robotics from Imperial. 

“I think it’s all about hiring the best faculty and the rest of the ecosystem follows, doesn’t it? If you hire the best faculty, you hire the best students and it’s a virtuous circle. I’d love to hire a physicist into the school of architecture. It’s like creating a Möbius strip, just trying to keep the infinity loop constantly moving.” 

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