HIGHER EDUCATION ART COLLEGES: The Art of Success ; Ten Years Ago, Art Colleges Were Run Down, Unfashionable Second- Class Institutions. Today, They Are Being Transformed into Modern, Stylish Design Schools. Lucy Hodges Reports

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Britain's art colleges are undergoing a heady renaissance. They have become trendy again and, for the first time, are putting up fantastic new buildings to reflect their standing in the national psyche.

The best of them, such as Chelsea College of Art and Design, which has relocated to the impressive 19th-century former army barracks next to the Tate Britain, are spawning new premises for arts study.

Students will not only be able to paint and draw and make pots in the beautifully upgraded former Royal Army Medical College; they'll also be able to spill out into the parade ground and wander over to the Tate for joint lectures and exhibitions " all open to the public. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom do you have a world- class art gallery and a world-class college cheek by jowl. It is a sign of new self-confidence and ambition in the art school world.

'Art colleges have come of age,' says Vaughn Grylls, director of the Kent Institute of Art and Design, which will shortly be merging with the Surrey Institute of Art and Design. 'The 1960s saw a resurgence of art colleges when they started to award degrees. That continued in the 1970s. But after that the focus turned to management, health and sports studies. Maybe it was Tony Blair coming to power in 1997, but anyway something happened in the mid- 1990s. Art colleges became fashionable again.'

The new belief in the importance of art colleges' work has coincided with a relaxation in the criteria for colleges to become universities. Suddenly, art and design colleges are able to aspire to be universities. That is what Kent and Surrey are doing with their merger. First they will become a university college; later they plan to become a new specialist arts university in the South- east with five campuses, including a new one in Folkestone designed by Norman Foster.

The institution that all colleges are emulating is the University of the Arts London, which houses the capital's famous five art colleges " Chelsea, Camberwell, Central Saint Martins, the London College of Fashion and the London College of Communication. It is the largest arts university in Europe, a powerhouse blazing the trail for art and design, fuelling the capital's creative industries and attracting thousands of overseas students to London.

Set up by the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, it was the first specialist arts institution to win university status, and has done a brilliant job of providing strategic leadership and services but leaving the teaching and research to its constituent colleges. Cannily led by Sir Michael Bichard, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, it has realised the importance of colleges' keeping their own names and identities.

It is no coincidence that Wimbledon School of Art is negotiating to become part of the University of the Arts in preference to merging with Kingston University, nor that Byam Shaw, a private art college, preferred to join the University of the Arts rather than London Metropolitan University. 'What we're trying to do here is to get the best of both worlds,' says Sir Michael. 'We want the best of the old, small art colleges. We don't want to lose the identity of a Wimbledon, if they come in with us, or a Central Saint Martins.'

The University of the Arts London has been fortunate in its rector. As the former top dog of the education world, Bichard had the confidence and knowledge to drive through a development such as Chelsea's Millbank next to the Tate. This was no easy task. When bidding for the former Royal Army Medical College, Bichard found he was up against the Aga Khan, one of the world's richest men. He got it for about pounds 35m, and spent the same again having it cleverly kitted out by the architects Allies and Morrison, who also masterminded the new development for the London College of Communication. …