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OCAD alumna Karin von Ompteda went on to complete two degrees in biology, and is finishing a PhD in design at the Royal College of Art in London. (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail/Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
OCAD alumna Karin von Ompteda went on to complete two degrees in biology, and is finishing a PhD in design at the Royal College of Art in London. (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail/Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

Time to lead

A portrait of the art school's vision for graduates: Thinkers as well as makers Add to ...

Karin von Ompteda is a Canadian expert on designing typefaces for the visually impaired. She had two degrees in biology when she decided to leave the sciences and follow her heart to art school, doing a bachelor's degree at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.

"I certainly felt that pursing a career in the arts wasn't 'allowed,' " said Ms. Ompteda, who is now completing a PhD in design at the Royal College of Art in London, planning to become a university professor. "I only decided to study design after completing my MSc in biology, which felt like a huge risk at the time."

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Ms. von Ompteda, 33, may be older and more educated than most art-school grads, but her path through multiple degrees toward a career in academia is clear evidence of how the institutions that were once Canada's art colleges have embraced a new role as degree-granting universities. While parents and students increasingly question the value of a liberal education, figuring employers are more likely to want credentials in computer engineering than in English literature, the art schools believe that a broader education has to be added to the specialized training they have always offered.

"Liberal arts education allied with deeply focused knowledge in one area is really important," said Sara Diamond, president of the institution that changed its name to OCAD University last year. "[Graduates]need to be thinkers who are highly adaptable as well as makers."

The name change completes a process begun in 2000 when the Ontario government first allowed OCAD to grant bachelor's degrees in fine art and design instead of mere diplomas, and it follows a Canadian trend. The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax and Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver have been granting degrees for decades but only became universities in 2003 and 2008 respectively.

"It meant a broadening of the curriculum that gives you a sense of history and context, analytic skills, entrepreneurial skills," Dr. Diamond said of the change. "This was always a professional school and you want to add to that analytic thinking and the courage to take risks that academic thinking provides."

The art schools argue they offer the best of both worlds, specialized training in making and general training in thinking, and potential students seem to agree. Enrolment at OCAD has grown 45 per cent in the past decade and stands at nearly 4,000 students; at NSCAD, enrolment has increased by 75 per cent to more than 1,000 students in the last 20 years. At Emily Carr, it is up 50 per cent in the last 10 years to accommodate nearly 2,000 students while the number of applicants to the school has tripled.

"It is a new kind of professional education that harkens back to liberal arts but it looks forward to a co-op model that allows people to jet out into the workplace," said Ron Burnett, president at Emily Carr, where recent design graduates have gotten jobs with Apple, RIM and Lululemon Athletica.

The university label makes it easier to attract funding, but it involves a cultural shift that is not merely semantic - and not always smooth. The focus on research at the new universities is particularly controversial.

"How do you maintain your core mission, which is education not research?" asked Daniel Doz, president at the Alberta College of Art and Design, the one Canadian art school that remains a college.

ACAD grants degrees, and there is less incentive for it to become a university because different provincial laws mean there is neither a financial nor administrative advantage to being a university in Alberta, Dr. Doz explained.

Still, he points out that universities are research institutions that place more weight on faculty's research achievements than on their teaching time. He wonders whether the arts schools have gone that route because there is money in it - even though their students need long hours of hands-on teaching.

"We are still clinging to the belief studio time is important," he said.

Dr. Diamond, on the other hand, argues undergraduates need to have access to researchers if they are going to learn how to think. "A faculty well funded in research bring that knowledge into the classroom," she said.

Certainly, the art schools have convinced governments they have an enlarged role to play, successfully positioning themselves as torch-bearers of a creative economy. OCAD will launch a master's program in digital futures in the fall. Next year, NSCAD will open its Institute of Applied Creativity, a research lab that will encourage students and faculty to solve problems outside the university. Predicting where graduates of such programs might work and what they might develop remains as speculative as the future careers of English and philosophy grads.

David Smith, president of NSCAD said: "We are uniquely equipping our graduates for careers they couldn't possibly imagine."

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