Many art schools in the UK have continued the courses despite the pandemic, impacting thousands of students who have been left without adequate support and placed in a lurch, similarly to those attending Glasgow School of Art, the RCA and other art schools in the UK where the #pauseorpay initiative is gaining traction. With the lockdown in place since March, UAL students have had to abandon work they had started in their workshops and start from scratch at home, with the teaching overhauled during the Easter holidays to accommodate the thousands of students who would now have to take classes through Zoom.
The National Union of Students is advocating for its own campaign called the Student Safety Net, with president Zamzam Ibrahim releasing a statement that “students were going to be ’empowered consumers’ but actually, when something like this happens, we feel we’ve got fewer rights than if we’d booked an Airbnb.” Disillusioned with the state of fashion and art education, some students are preferring to opt-out indefinitely, while others are joining in unions to get course fees reimbursed. While the government has promised to look into the effect that COVID has had on further education, conducting reports rarely leads to an outcome and effectively ends discussions that are needed to understand the situation.
However, it is not only students who are struggling. The universities rely on students’ fees to operate. The reinvention of teaching required and the combined pressures of online delivery and student support through the pandemic have put pressure on academics and their teaching. Three have given their perspective on the changes and the hopes for fashion education going forward. We talked to Jose Teunissen, the Dean of the School of Design & Technology at London College of Fashion, Andrew Groves, Fashion Design Professor at Westminster, and Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martins and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London on the future of arts and fashion courses at UAL and how teaching and learning will change in the coming years as more courses are to go digital.
Head of Central Saint Martins Jeremy Till wants to remind the students that this is not an ordinary circumstances and that the effects of COVID will be felt globally across all industries. “Someone in a staff meeting the other day said that we are not dealing here with remote learning, but with a global emergency. It’s very easy to get sucked into a discussion about online learning and the details of that and forget that what we are actually facing is a global crisis. That’s not to make excuses! Unfortunately, because it’s CSM, everyone is watching what we are going to be doing.”
“In hindsight, we have probably over-propelled the importance of the degree show. We needed to look at it anyway because of the climate emergency, as it’s incredibly unsustainable.” – Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martins
The Degree Show
The degree show is one of the areas that students will miss out on most, being a show that culminates years of hard work with the hopes of impressing the employers that come to view it. “In hindsight, we have probably over-propelled the importance of the degree show. We needed to look at it anyway because of the climate emergency, as it’s incredibly unsustainable. COVID has just accelerated that. The degree show is a moment where you identify with your work as a physical presentation of yourself to the outside world. By doing it virtually, that identification has to shift. There is not much evidence that the degree show launches people into the world. Maybe in a few, like Lee McQueen and Grace [Wales Bonner] and a few others. However, it’s not, at the structural level, the way that people find jobs,” explains Till.
Looking back on its legacy and history, this seems to be a seismic shift for a college that prides itself on both tradition of the show and innovation in equal measure. Even though the show may not secure jobs, it provides exposure of individual talent to an opaque industry. For Jeremy Till, it’s a format that worked until it didn’t. “I will definitely miss it!” he says. “They are extraordinary events. It’s actually the moment before the degree shows that Central Saint Martins is the most extraordinary place ever because of that sense of anticipation, fear, and hope, and weird emotions floating around. On the positive side, if we pull off the virtual showcase, we will be reaching a global audience. It would be the biggest online showcase of creative work anywhere in the world. That will, inevitably, bring people to see it and expose students to new audiences. It’s not a replacement – it’s a different form of presentation.”
In light of the climate crisis, the degree show had already come into question on its validity in an age of un-sustainable fashion shows. “Do we really need to make all the products?” Jose Teunissen says. “Although we need to make things for the portfolio, it is a question we are asking on a wider scale. We had started the discussion last year on how effective the showcase is and could it be shifted to a digital portfolio that has a longer lifeline that could showcase the student’s concepts and thinking more effectively. We realised last year that we don’t know for who the day-long event was for and who can actually capture it. Is it not better to streamline it, to contour it with industry partners and people that matter the way we are doing it now?” Publications across fashion are supporting graduates from the industry by promoting their work on their channels, but there is a risk that some will fall through the cracks in the rigorous editing of candidates.
“Most students are dealing with the same kind of problems that the heart of our provision is related to: using workshops” – Dean Jose Teunissen, London College of Fashion
Dean Jose Teunissen of London College of Fashion knows that shifting workshops online was going to be impossible. “Our school needs to make the biggest transitions to shift to online. It’s going to be the most difficult school to shift back to a ‘normal’ way of running things, even a social-distanced normal. That is actually what we are trying to think about now – what will be the exit to lockdown and what it will mean to re-enter our workshops.”
For now, UAL is planning to open up in September adhering to social distancing measures. Dean Teunissen has also proposed ideas of letting students access the workshops through a set timetable that would allow students to develop their skills before starting the course. “Most students are dealing with the same kind of problems that the heart of our provision is related to: using workshops,” says Dean Teunissen. “Once the academic year starts, we would delay the start to mid-October and offer the students a five or six-week option to get some skill training in the workshop. It’s not necessarily finishing everything that they had originally planned to do, but it should bridge that skills gap.” This will be a welcome opportunity for students to access the spaces that they paid for, however, it may put pressure on teaching staff to reach a minimum threshold for learning, perhaps not allowing students to delve freely into their interests.
“The staff has been amazing – they went from a standing start to delivering online learning in the space of three weeks. It’s taken a huge toll on them, as it has been very stressful and continues to be.” – Jeremy Till
As an all-encompassing art school, UAL offers eighteen subjects and over 350 courses at pre-degree, undergraduate and postgraduate level, plus PhD and MDPhil courses and up to a thousand short courses. The courses start with costs between £360 for a 4-week short course to £11,220 for a fifteen-month postgraduate course for UK/EU students (with costs almost doubling for international students). Classes hold between five and about thirty students. Even with salaries, material costs, and upkeep of studios and spaces, keeping the courses going is incredibly profitable for the university. However, it is not only the students who need to be considered. Real livelihoods depend on the courses going forward – without pay, teachers and academics are left without jobs and income. Jeremy Till acknowledges their contribution, saying, “the staff has been amazing – they went from a standing start to delivering online learning in the space of three weeks. It’s taken a huge toll on them, as it has been very stressful and continues to be. Students have also said that they need time to switch off and I think that we need to manage those expectations.”
Andrew Groves, Fashion Design Professor at Westminster whose former students include Ashley Williams, Claire Barrow, Liam Hodges and Roberta Einer has said that teaching communication has become “much more focussed. That allows students to be more prepared to ask what they need to progress, but can be more transactional, and therefore missing those informal moments that enable us all to reflect on other issues outside of our own personal practice. Sometimes the magic is what happens in between the work you are actually doing.”
“The students are having to adapt in real-time much like the industry that they are part of, generating new ways of working that will be adopted by the industry they are about to enter.” – Andrew Groves, Professor of Fashion Design, University of Westminster
Andrew believes that schools should credit the students for their tenacious approach to the situation and for their continued efforts to develop creative work under these conditions. “I think we have adapted incredibly quickly and students have been superb, and very resourceful. It helps that the work of a fashion designer isn’t just a creative one, but one of being a pragmatic problem solver. The students are having to adapt in real-time much like the industry that they are part of, generating new ways of working that will be adopted by the industry they are about to enter.”
For many students, the lack of access to resources has come as a blow to their creative work. Talking about her experience transitioning into lockdown virtual mode, Jose said, “Students were disappointed because, for them, the final outcome determines their career path in the industry. I think that there was a lot of anxiety. However, we found a lot of solutions –technical explanations using a camera to really capture everything as the students and tutors explained it. Students were told to use paper and what they could find to create their pieces. What started as a challenge has now settled a little. We see that student engagement is much better. Some of the things that we deliver are easier because students feel happier that they can stay safely at home. Some students have travelled back to China because their parents are concerned about the way that the UK and Europe are handling the coronavirus. Those parents think it’s too dangerous, as in Asia they started wearing masks much earlier and had better protection.” With the lockdown in the UK coming to a close, government guidelines are not always clear, which may result in confusion leading up to the reopening of universities for the September start. International students may not return as outbreaks continue around the world. Digital solutions can be helpful, allowing students to access course material and have seminars. However, if the students do not have access to technology, this can pose a problem, especially if they are out of the country. For some, UAL is providing laptops and other tech as continued support during this time.
Tutors have adapted to the new virtual learning systems through the UAL portal and Zoom. For some, it was an opportunity to work from home and be with their families, but the adjustment was not easy. “At first, a lot of tutors didn’t feel very confident,” said Jose. “Our digital learning team did staff sessions for them before they started. Instead of going on their Easter break, they had to modify their unit and prepare for online teaching and they were exhausted. Most of them now feel quite confident though. Our cultural and historical teams, in particular, have received positive feedback from the students – that is one area that will definitely shift more online as they can do it easier.” The mixed format of delivery will continue into the new term, hopefully allowing workshop access to the students who need it most.
“In times of crisis there is an opportunity – what this has done is force us to reconsider some of our standard practices.” – Jeremy Till
How do the academics see the end of lockdown affecting courses? Jeremy Till knows that this will not be an easy road, with social distancing measures in place and many students not coming back for their courses. “Next term there will almost certainly still be social distancing. Therefore, we are probably going to be obliged to keep some blended learning. On a more positive note, a lot of the teams are saying that they want to do it. We are getting more engagement from students who otherwise were not engaging. We are getting more democratic discourse through the chat options as students feel empowered by not having to put their hand up in a public space. We are finding students collecting after classes online and doing more peer learning. We are inventing new ways of looking at work and of discussing work. In times of crisis there is an opportunity – what this has done is force us to reconsider some of our standard practices.” This outlook might not be shared by the students supporting the #PauseorPay action or the tutors on short courses let down by UAL, however, it appears to be the only one on the table.
The industry has gone through a rocky period. Hiring freezes were put in place and company values were shaken up with calls for accountability for its handling of POC staff. COVID has exacerbated issues with global fashion supply chains, as workers for major brands were not paid for orders. This is a very different industry to the one that students saw in March and there are concerns that cuts will affect the fashion industry further over the coming months, targeting entry-level jobs. Tentative digital shows and the return of Paris Fashion Week seem to say that things will go back to normal and graduates won’t find it harder to find jobs. Andrew disagrees, saying, “We have excellent industry contacts, and many of the companies have been calling me to reassure our students that they are still looking for new graduate talent, and telling them to feel positive! Some students have already had interviews. We are liaising with design houses in Paris and New York that have asked to interview our graduates, so I’m quite hopeful they will get jobs soon. The industry thrives on the energy and new ideas of graduates. It’s actually a very positive moment, to be graduating as part of the generation that will change the fashion industry for the better. It’s long overdue.”