Is It Time to Look Beyond Elite Fashion Schools and Find Better Alternatives?

BRICKS explores the realities of traditional fashion education and highlights the incredible change makers in today’s world of online learning.

Around this time two years ago my biggest dream came true: I got accepted into my dream fashion university. Breaking into the fashion industry for the first time felt attainable and I was filled with incredible gratitude to have been selected from a pool of many hundreds of other equally ambitious applicants. Fast forward – I’m in my second year of university as a fashion journalism student and, while my ambitions have been nurtured, my expectations have  diminished. 

The hardships of the past year have put a dark cloud over UK university education with most classes being moved online, students experiencing loneliness in abandoned student halls and lack of financial support from the government. Understandably, some of these consequences were inevitable due to government restrictions but others, such as lack of financial and physical support, have simply uncovered the flawed nature of our education system. In addition, the classes I now participate in from home have exhibited more truths about the questionable quality of education we receive at universities. 

We think the time is rife to start expanding beyond traditional education and demand more and better options. As it happens, the rise of digital communication in our stay-at-home world has introduced many prospective and noteworthy alternatives to classic fashion education. These alternatives offer a plethora of online classes that are free of charge and easily accessible – two key factors excluded from university education. 

These alternatives offer a plethora of online classes that are free of charge and easily accessible – two key factors excluded from university education. 

One such alternative is The Slow Factory’s Open Education program. As an Equity-Centred Education, they offer a variety of open-access classes for anyone interested in fashion topics that include and acknowledge political power structures and historical context – aided by their slogan What School Won’t Teach You. Such classes are hosted weekly and range from fashion and its relation to colonialism, waste, cultural heritage and many more. 

Eager to learn, I joined the first lecture and instantly took note of the immense variety of  participants from all over the globe and from all walks of life. One participant Rachel Bang, a Computer Science student from Texas, appreciated the course’s “intersectionality with heavier topics such as colonialism and environmentalism – cover topics that many in the industry may find touchy and therefore difficult to conversate about”. In fact, Rachel finds “their ability to dismantle the classist and capitalist nature of fashion education” to be The Slow Factory’s strong suit and a clear demonstration of their inclusivity. 

Many more students reached out to rave about the incredible accessibility and depth of the Open Education program. BA Fashion Art Direction graduate Sophie Walker boldly says: “I learned more from the fashion and waste seminar than I did in my whole uni experience”. This may be a tough pill to swallow for universities, but opens new pathways for prospective students. Sophie admires how The Slow Factory “is not monetised and they are supporting BIPOC educators” which indeed signifies a pivotal moment for education amid shocking truths of underrepresentation of BIPOC teachers in UK schools. The majority of The Slow Factory’s classes are taught by Black, Brown, Indigenous and minority scholars and educators which poses an invaluable significance when teaching about topics such as colonialism and cultural heritage. 

Are universities unable to provide the same quality and integrity in their teachings? Too many times, in my experience, were topics such as diversity and inclusivity taught by white lecturers who barely scratched the surface of how positive change can be implemented. BA Fashion Journalism student Shahinaz Alotaishan says: “It’s as if they added it to appease the students and the social discourse, but it isn’t taught as though it is vital and it doesn’t reflect on the real issues – instead it briefly goes over definitions of and opinions on the topic. Feels a lot like tokenism to me most times.” 

As student body representative, Shahinaz often has to listen to the frustrations of other students from her course about “repetitive content being taught, not enough variation in lectures, offensive content presented in class and no units surrounding contemporary issues or reflecting the current fashion industry”. Unfortunately, the students’ complaints are rarely tackled by the university and sometimes even disregarded completely. 

Why is it that prestigious universities who pride themselves in their awareness of topics such as diversity and equality are failing to stick to their promises? As we enter further into a more conscious and digitally-reliant world, it might not be enough for universities to rely on an antiquated image stemmed from elitism and inequality. 

As we enter further into a more conscious and digitally-reliant world, it might not be enough for universities to rely on an antiquated image stemmed from elitism and inequality.

Elitism has long plagued university education – high tuitions, low acceptance rates and prerequisite industry experience are factors only benefitting a small number of privileged applicants. For instance, the BA Fashion Design and Fashion Communication courses at the prestigious Central Saint Martins have an acceptance rate of only 6% – narrowing the pool of prospective students and furthering the university’s exclusivity. 

So, I ask: why are we still feeding into the exclusivity and insufficient capabilities of university education? As a university student myself I cannot rebuke my education completely, but it’s vital to keep questioning elite institutions which only promote the exact issues they attempt to denounce in class. 

On the bright side, university alternatives are undoubtedly high in demand since I keep stumbling across new programs and courses. Coincidentally, Central Saint Martins’ platform 1 Granary is promoting a variety of free online fashion classes available to join all throughout March. These classes are taught by various international institutions from the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Fashion Research Forum. Moreover, US-based Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale are sharing their esteemed courses on wide-ranging subjects on their online websites for free. And, while it may feel contradictory to promote these elite institutions, there’s no shame in taking advantage of their high-ranking quality of education to learn how to reform and adjust these structures and standards in the future. 

For more fashion-based learning, small online communities have formed on various digital platforms such as Check-Out Magazine’s ‘Download’ feature. The platform aims to provide a helpful resource for emerging fashion talent to share and exchange advice and skills by offering downloadable tutorials, templates and kits to support any young creative’s learning. Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Thompson notes how “there is so much pressure now to be this amazing, multi-skilled, multi-hyphenate creative who can do anything, but no one actually teaches you how to do anything.” The social media-rooted world we live in gradually expects young talent to be proficient across various skill sets that go beyond your central university course which can seem intimidating and exhausting. However, Check-Out Magazine wants to provide some relief with ‘Download’ and facilitate the expectations of the industry. “We’re all a work-in-progress and there’s no shame in admitting that – learning is something we do forever,” says Thompson. 

It seems that social media-based learning is gaining popularity from young students who recognise the lack of sincerity and depth of traditional education and turn towards niche and smaller platforms such as Sister Magazine, Azeema Mag and Mille World to counterbalance these issues. “They not only educate their readers and followers on fashion but everything surrounding the fashion industry [such as] recognizing minorities and diasporas,” says Shahinaz.

While these wide-ranging alternatives lack physical practices and in-person counselling due to their digital nature, they’re a great starting point. It’s obvious that these digital options don’t cater much to hands-on fashion design education but work as an add-on to fill the gaps in traditional fashion education that avoid or only skim over the most pressing topics facing the contemporary fashion industry.

Observing the state of the world in the past year, it seems we must prepare for an ever-increasing digital society in which online education will surpass traditional learning and hopefully advance. Whether elite institutions will stand the test of time depends on their willingness to evolve and make positive changes. Until then, I have a report to hand in. 

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