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Is Fashion Education Selling a False Dream?

Central Saint Martins and The Royal College of Art have emerged as the top schools in BoF’s first Global Fashion School Rankings. But our survey also reveals widespread dissatisfaction amongst the more than 4,000 students and alumni who participated in our survey. Is fashion education selling a false dream?
Parsons The New School of Fashion, New York, USA | Photo: James-Ewing, Courtesy of Parsons
  • Imran Amed,
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — The fashion education sector is booming. As the scale and scope of the industry has grown over the last decade, and social media has opened up a once secretive business to the masses, the appeal of fashion as a career opportunity has grown with it, leading more and more young people to pursue fashion education.

"Fashion education has grown enormously in scale compared to ten years ago," says Sara Kozlowski, Director of Education and Professional Development at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). "In some cases institutions have experienced enrollment increases tripling student populations."

In the United Kingdom, there are more than 30 colleges and universities now offering fashion degree courses, with thousands of fashion design graduates each year. And, private institutions like the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Istituto Marangoni are also muscling into the fashion education market — setting up programmes in China, India and beyond to meet the burgeoning interest in fashion education in Asia's fast-growing economies.

So, how to navigate this increasingly complex fashion education landscape? The purpose of the BoF Global Fashion School Rankings out today is three fold: it aims to assess the value and impact of this growing sector, in hope of aiding prospective students in making informed choices about pursuing higher education in fashion; it acts as a tool for universities and colleges to improve their education offerings; and it serves as a resource for the wider industry to engage in a discussion about fashion education.

The ranking is based on a rigorous methodology incorporating 60 different data points gathered directly from a shortlist of 24 top fashion institutions, surveys completed by 4,032 students and recent alumni, feedback from 88 HR professionals and global fashion influencers and our own BoF analysis of 21 undergraduate and 10 graduate programmes around the world.

First, the good news: students are generally “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the teaching (83 percent), the library and study materials (83 percent), and workrooms, buildings and campuses (76 percent).

Students were particularly complimentary about their teachers. “Tutors are of a very high calibre and with relevant experience from industry or still work within industry. [They] are very good at recognising potential and pushing students to produce their best work,” one former student from Central Saint Martins comments.

"I really believe FIT is among the last remaining US fashion schools that provides students with an adequate education in garment construction and patternmaking. It's a quintessentially old-fashioned technical school, which has advantages and disadvantages alike," writes an alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"The teachers were absolutely golden, each and every one of them has a story to tell that made me want to pursue a career in fashion even more," adds a student from Polimoda.

However, in other areas, there remains a significant gap between the expectations of these students vis-à-vis their actual experiences while in school and after graduation. In particular, many students were significantly less satisfied with the support in finding employment.

“Brilliant school, brilliant exposure, zero help afterwards,” says one former Central Saint Martins student.

“Parsons tested my work ethic and exposed me to a diverse student body and resources, but poorly prepared students for the realities of job placement and career development,” echoes a Parsons alumnus.

Indeed, only 57 percent of the 4,032 students in our survey are satisfied with careers services, just 53 percent are satisfied with networking events and only 49 percent are satisfied with the quality of recruiters on campus. And afterwards, many disappointed students report that they end up taking jobs outside of fashion, or not finding jobs at all. With BA tuition fees costing an average of $18,000 per year and MA tuition an average of $23,000 per year, students are clearly looking for a better return on this significant investment.

“More emphasis is needed on career options and specific design career fairs need to be implemented as this is lacking in the programme,” says a student from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “Unfortunately there was not much help when it came to graduation and career advice. This was left up to myself,” adds another.

The underlying root cause of this global fashion education issue may be something experts have dubbed “The Project Runway Effect.” While many young people are attracted to working as fashion designers due to the growing visibility of the industry on television and social media, the growing popularity of fashion education has not been matched by a corresponding increase in fashion design jobs.

According to statistics compiled by the CFDA and the Department for Education, in 2013 there were 17,370 reported jobs as ‘fashion designer’ in the United States. “It’s estimated that each year about 10 percent of the total job pool are graduating from undergraduate programs and entering industry with degrees in fashion design, which in turn has created an oversupply,” says the CFDA’s Kozlowski.

This means that each year, the US fashion sector would have to make room for 1,700 new fashion design graduates either through attrition or market growth, which seems highly unlikely. And as more and more graduates emerge each year, there are fewer and fewer jobs on offer.

Institut Français de la Mode, Paris, France | Source: Courtesy

It's a phenomenon that also holds true in the UK, home to seven of our top ranking fashion schools. According to data compiled by Graduate Prospects, only one in seven UK-based fashion design students graduating in 2014 found employment as designers, with the rest taking on roles in retail, marketing, sales and administration. So, while more than 85 percent of fashion design graduates ultimately find full-time employment, most of them will not work as designers.

Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, is working with careers services at UK fashion colleges to improve the range of fashion related jobs that students are informed of before enrolling in university.

“Even now, I think if you go to a career advisor at school and say: ‘I want to work in the fashion industry,’ they say, ‘Well, you have the chance to either work in retail or to be a designer,’ and don't understand all of the other roles that go around that. You end up with this vicious cycle where you’ve got young people who think that they want to be a designer, when actually their skills might be better suited to a different role, either a skills-based role or even management or administration work,” says Rush.

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia | Source: Courtesy

But, all is not lost. In a fast-changing fashion market being reshaped by new business models, emerging technologies and shifting consumer values, there are many new career paths emerging in fashion.

“Although there is currently an imbalance of supply and demand for design graduates, the landscape is poised for new sectors within innovative and hybridised specialisations that include digital manufacturing, social innovation, sustainability and new business models,” reports Kozlowski. These new roles are increasingly important to the future of the fashion business, and offer graduates new ways to participate in this exciting sector.

However, fashion students and alumni participating in our survey report that they feel unequipped with the practical business skills and training they need to thrive once they enter full-time employment or go on to start their own business.

Only 58 percent of students are satisfied with their business training, only 54 percent of students are satisfied with work placement opportunities and only 44 percent of students are satisfied with teaching on sustainability in the curriculum, the lowest satisfaction scores in our entire survey.

“It’s one of the most prestigious schools in the world when it comes to fashion, and just that in itself opened a lot of doors for me,” writes one Central Saint Martins alumnus. “There is a lot of controversy around the training at Saint Martins though, like the fact that we didn’t have a single technical class or business course throughout our BA. If you want to have that you are told you can go somewhere else.”

Drexel University, Philadelphia, United States | Source: Courtesy

Interestingly, the most reputable schools, including Central Saint Martins, Parsons and The Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp receive among the lowest scores in this regard. Of course, students at the top schools might be expected to be those with the highest expectations, so they are the hardest to please, but what’s clear is that these schools have a long way to go before satisfying the needs of the most talented, high-potential fashion students.

Conversely, those schools that did provide the best student experiences are neither those with the best reputations, nor those that are the most selective. Perhaps the most surprising outcome of our Global Fashion School Rankings was the outstanding feedback from students and alumni from schools off the beaten path, suggesting that prospective students may want to carefully consider a wider range of colleges when making decisions about higher education in fashion.

"Overall, I couldn't ask for a better experience," comments a current student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, 10th in our BA ranking. "Since coming to Drexel I have become more creative, hardworking and driven. None of that would have been possible without the exemplary staff at Drexel. My teachers have challenged me creatively and are always available for positive feedback on both my designs and my craft. They help in making sure that the students who really want to be there thrive and produce great work."

One former student from Kingston University just outside of London, 3rd overall in our BA ranking, writes: “Impeccable teaching from tutors who really care and want to help develop you to the best of your potential. Industry links are unrivalled, with many well-paid international internships on offer.”

Bunka Fashion College, Tokyo, Japan | Source: Courtesy

A student at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, ranked 2nd overall in our BA ranking raves: “Not being a native Japanese speaker, the first few months were overwhelming, yet exciting. It is like riding a bicycle for the first time — Bunka will hold the handles for you, teach you how to pedal and slowly let go. Suddenly, you’re having the ride of your life, and you know you did because you learnt from the best.”

As the market landscape continues to shift, fashion educators would be well advised to listen to their students and re-think the balance of their course offerings to better reflect the changing needs of the industry. At some schools, this is already happening.

This year, the London College of Fashion launched a new Fashion Business School, following the pioneering Centre for Sustainable Fashion, established in 2008. The Pratt Institute has opened its own Centre for Sustainable Design, integrating environmental and societal design principles into its programmes. Drexel University is in the midst of developing new graduate programmes in interdisciplinary design, in keeping with industry developments, the University of Creative Arts in Epsom is further developing its Design Business Institute, launched in 2014, and Polimoda is developing platforms to support fashion entrepreneurship.

What's clear is that the fashion education landscape is in an exciting period of flux. We hope that our Global Ranking of Fashion Schools will provide fodder for discussion and debate in the years to come as the fashion industry enters a new period of growth and expansion.

What do you think constitutes a high quality, rewarding fashion education? Share your thoughts in the comments below. To view the full BoF Global Fashion School Rankings 2015 and learn more about our ranking methodology, click here.

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