Britain’s universities will be an essential pillar in the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, says Sir Peter Bazalgette. Bringing together researchers and designers in universities with companies eager to commercialise their ideas is “the most important thing this government will do”, says Bazalgette, one of the most prominent figures in the UK’s creative industries.
Higher education institutions have faced huge pressures on their finances and operations during the pandemic and the disruption of Brexit. But Bazalgette says the ideas seeded in their design studios and engineering labs will be vital in the recovery.
“Our higher education sector is a jewel in the crown of Britain, whether judged by research, spinouts or student applications. Linking them to industry to make exciting things happen is the most important thing the government will do post-Brexit and post-Covid,” he says.
Championing the academic sphere might seem out of place for a man once accused of “dumbing down” culture by introducing UK viewers to reality TV with shows such as Big Brother. But since his days as a hands-on TV executive, Bazalgette has gone on to occupy some of the biggest jobs in media and culture, including chairmanship of Arts Council England and latterly of the broadcaster ITV. Whitehall and the government have sought his views on policy for the creative industries, and in 2017 he authored a book arguing the case for culture beyond its growing economic value.
He is now moving on to a significant role in higher education, as chair of the council of the Royal College of Art, the illustrious alma mater of some of Britain’s biggest names in art and design, including James Dyson, David Adjaye, Tracey Emin and Thomas Heatherwick. He is set to join the board in October before taking over in 2022 as chair from Gail Rebuck, former chief executive of publisher Random House.
A postgraduate art and design university with three campus sites in London, the RCA is undergoing what it calls a “transformation” of its approach to research and teaching. A £108m building by Herzog & de Meuron, architects of Tate Modern, is being completed in Battersea. It is expanding its science and engineering offering with teaching on nanotechnology and robotics, computer science and AI. In encouraging engineers and scientists to mingle with artists and designers, the RCA wants to create a “crucible” of ideas to fuel innovation. “The RCA sits at the sweet spot for the creative industries,” says Bazalgette.
But another motivation for a position in an arts and design university is the platform it gives him to contribute from afar to conversations he is sure are taking place in the Treasury about the shape of a future recovery.
“If you are taking a five-year view, what are the sectors you need to get behind? Where can you get the growth in high-value jobs? Creative industries is obviously the answer . . . And the added bonus you get from the sector firing on all cylinders is that it’s also about your culture, your identity and your national conversation, which you can’t say for the boot and shoe manufacturers.”
Speaking on a video call from his home in London’s Notting Hill, Bazalgette — widely known as “Baz” — says it is the first time in 12 months he has put on a suit, in readiness for portrait photographs to be taken by the FT. After a brief encounter with Covid-19 in October, his recovery appears complete, his conversation fluent — but his tone hardens when it comes to areas that vex him.
As chairman of ITV — a role that comes to an end in May 2022 — he has been grappling with the fast-changing pressures on the commercial broadcasting model both from streaming alternatives and the loss of advertising revenue to companies such as Google and Facebook.
He says liberal democracies urgently need to regulate the activities of the half-dozen dominant tech companies and force them to take greater responsibility.
“Their sins are legion and Teddy Roosevelt would have known what to do about it — he’d have broken them up immediately. It’s the biggest challenge not only to business but to civil society.”
His tone is more circumspect on the problems besetting universities — the RCA among them. Students have demanded fee cuts and extra financial support after teaching went online and they lost the part-time work that typically made ends meet — a headache for arts and engineering courses that are often intensely practical in nature. The RCA reconfigured its courses so that international students — it draws on 70 countries — could attend for intensive two-week stretches before the latest lockdown forced a return to remote learning.
He sympathises with students facing a much-diminished experience but says the RCA’s measures to continue with courses have proved their value. “Last summer, like many universities, the RCA was waiting to find out whether students who had enrolled would turn up. In their case, they had very few dropouts.”
As leader of a 2017 government-commissioned review into the future of the creative industries, Bazalgette is waiting “with bated breath” for ministers to emerge from Covid and Brexit to decide how it takes forward his recommendations.
He gives an example of the initiatives he would like to see: government support for a new generation of TV studios across the country, in cities from Birmingham to Belfast — not just in London and the south-east. “Virtual production” is the talk of an industry looking for ways to speed production with no loss of quality or artistic control. It uses powerful video game technology and vast LED screens to place actors directly in live virtual sets, doing away with green screens and the need for CGI in post-production.
His hope is that higher education institutions set up labs for computer scientists to make further advances in this technology but work with TV and film industry on its commercial use. “It drives the industry forwards,” he says.
When he arrives at the RCA he will be rubbing shoulders with Jony Ive, the British-American former design star at Apple, who became the university’s chancellor in 2017. While the designer plays an “inspirational” role for students and staff at the university, as well as helping its fundraising efforts, Bazalgette’s role is to oversee governance and further the strategy set by the vice-chancellor, Paul Thompson.
Did he know Ive before he took the job? He explains that he has only met him once, in 2012, when Ive was standing in front of him in the queue to be knighted at Buckingham Palace. Betraying his design enthusiasm, he claims to have been more “overawed” to meet the man behind the iPhone than by the pomp of his palace investiture. Kneeling at the cushion as the sword descended, he recalls his main thought at the time: “Wow — that was Jony Ive.”