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Counting the cost of learning

With some degree tuition fees rising to £9,000 in 2012, fashion’s next generation will need to carefully consider their career plans.

Imagine a fashion industry without the talents of the late Alexander McQueen. An industry devoid of the designer’s razor-sharp pattern-cutting skills, creative vision, eccentricity and ability to inspire. It’s a depressing thought, but if McQueen were starting his career today, he may not have become a fashion legend.

The son of a taxi driver, McQueen would have struggled to afford the £9,000 tuition fees his former college, Central Saint Martins in London, and the vast majority of the most respected fashion universities in the UK intend to charge the majority of their undergraduate intake in 2012, as a result of the Government’s cuts to arts and university funding.

“Fashion education is navigating without a map,” says Terry Mansfield, chairman of Graduate Fashion Week. “For 2011 we’ll see a lot of applications to go to university, but 2012 will be the year the education system changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a drop in applications of 10% to 15%.”

All the tutors who spoke to Drapers admitted they were worried about missing out on talented students from less affluent backgrounds.

“It’s extremely concerning,” says Lucy Jones, subject director of fashion and textiles, University of East London (UEL). “But we’re trying to allay fears that have been instilled in young people about debt.

“We have time to develop lots of incentives, bursaries and links with local schools, so we won’t slam doors in front of young talent that can’t afford the fees.”

Under the new plans, students won’t pay their tuition fees up front. Instead the Government will lend the money, with students paying it back when they earn more than £21,000 per year. Loans will be repaid at a rate of 9% of income above £21,000. So those earning £25,000 will pay 9% of £4,000 - £360 per year or £6.92 per week.

While Mansfield is supportive of the new scheme’s payment terms, he warns that a culture of “owing a lot of money when you’re young” could put students off. “That’s why so many young people are still living at home,” he says.”This is the first generation of young people who will be less wealthy than their parents.”

Help to study

As a result of these concerns, De Montfort University says it is launching a £20m package of “financial support, outreach and retention activities” that will run over three years, and will invest £8.75m in new leisure and learning zones. “These proposals are designed to allow the university to continue to invest in a strong financial future while representing value for money for all students, regardless of financial circumstances,” says Dr Gerard Moran, dean of De Montfort’s faculty of art and design.

Both Jones and Dr Simon Ofield-Kerr, dean of art, design and architecture at Kingston University, believe degree courses that are deemed “employable” will become more popular, but stress that it’s still too early to say how higher education will change, echoing the sentiments of many of their peers.

For September, UEL will introduce a digital fashion course focusing on topics such as blogging, website building and digital films. “We’re expecting a high application because of its currency,” says Jones, who believes universities may look at shortening degree courses from three to two years.

Ofield-Kerr believes “anyone who thinks they can predict what will happen would be deceiving themselves”, adding that partnerships with industry, retailers and brands alike are key to building “realistic” degree courses.

Andrew Moore, managing director of George at Asda, Graduate Fashion Week’s sponsor, and Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council and owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum, agree that industry support will become even more vital to the success of fashion education in the UK.

“There’s dual pressure on students who want to go to university: £9,000 is a lot of money for many families and about 25% to 30% of undergraduates are not getting onto a course because of oversupply,” Moore explains. “So business has to take some responsibility. With GFW, we wanted to broaden the appeal of different disciplines to show that the industry isn’t just about design, but also about buying, about merchandising, so we had buyers and merchandisers there for students to talk to. Nurturing home-grown talent is one of our biggest opportunities.”

In addition, George at Asda is launching an “earn while you learn” programme in August, letting four college leavers study a retail foundation degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, while taking a salaried job at the company.

Many believe the industry will see a rise in the number of young people opting for apprenticeships, a route McQueen took at Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard before going to college. “I think we will see more apprenticeships and companies need to take the initiative,” says Tillman. “I’ve made a suggestion to the Government that it offers government-supported diplomas with companies that offer apprenticeships.”

Anda Rowland, vice-chairman of Anderson & Sheppard, says she has seen a “dramatic rise” in the number of applications for apprenticeships, but attributes this to a renewed interest in men’s tailoring in recent seasons and the death of McQueen. “But most people don’t want to borrow money given what’s happened in the last few years to the economy, so it makes sense to take the apprenticeship route. Many people are unaware that it’s an option,” she says.

Jan Jones, curriculum director at the Fashion Retail Academy in London, which is backed by Arcadia, Marks & Spencer, Next and Tesco, and from where 60% of students who graduated last year had jobs to go to, says the academy may introduce apprenticeships next year to run alongside its vocational courses. “We try to respond to industry needs,” she says.

Alternative education

Rising costs in education have been a concern for young people for some years, says Spencer Mehlman, managing director of the website

Set up in 2008 by Mehlman, the site provides school and college leavers with a directory of apprenticeships and vocational courses in the UK. It receives 60,000 visits per month, with the fashion section attracting 2,700 monthly visits, up 1,500 on the previous year. “We’ve noticed a massive change in attitude over the last 12 months. Before, the instant response you’d get from young people was ‘I’m going to uni’. Now there’s a greater awareness of the cost implication, that earn-as-you-learn is prudent, and that it gives you a foot in the door with a potential employer,” says Mehlman.

What all this shows is that the days of accepting the status quo are gone for career-driven, young people. In recent years, most would have had 10 GCSEs, three A-levels and a degree by the time they were 21. Now - for better or for worse - they are being forced to think more critically about their career paths. The diversification of education in the fashion industry will certainly help them along the way, as far as options are concerned. Equally, so will the drive of young creatives who cannot see a future for themselves in any other industry but fashion.

For all the concerns shared by individuals over the rise in tuition fees, they are all united in their belief that our young people are hungry for success in the arts and have the talent to match. “A young person who’s desperate to work in fashion will find a way to be educated,” says Tillman.

“A student who wants to do art and design, will do art and design,” echoes Ofield-Kerr. With his characteristic drive to create what was sometimes thought to be impossible, you can be sure McQueen would’ve found a way too, if he were starting out in the industry today.

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