Traditional higher education is a self-perpetuating system, in which degrees dictate which level of education a professor can teach their students. For example, a master’s degree is typically required to teach an undergraduate program and a doctoral degree is typically required to teach at the graduate level. On top of this basic scaffolding, professors are also required to do a particular amount of research, publishing, fundraising, and a professional practice related to their area of expertise, with the idea of keeping them current and connected to the knowledge and skills they impart in the classroom.
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For most areas of education, especially in the liberal arts or STEM subjects–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–this system has been in place for generations, but this hasn’t been the case for fashion. As universities began to integrate fashion into their curriculum, they had to make exceptions to their own hiring rules. This meant professors were largely practitioners–an important component in a skills-based industry, to be sure. But it has also meant that many fashion educators lacked experience in navigating higher education overall, in addition to curriculum and pedagogy.
With the birth of graduate level fashion programs in the early 2000s–mostly MFA programs related to design and MPS programs related to business–there are now more graduate level students seeking jobs as educators. However, this population is still relatively small, as most students are not joining these programs with teaching as their goal. First, an MFA or MPS program is a terminal degree, and not meant to move students towards a doctoral degree, so this limits potential within higher education. Second, students usually join these programs as a way to further build their career options and salaries. In fact, graduate students take a calculated risk in joining a graduate program–high tuition fees in exchange for higher pay potential.
In fact, because professors are notoriously low paid positions, there’s not much impetus for students to stay in education. The going rate for a professor at a top-tier fashion school in New York City for example is between $55,000 and $85,000 a year. Salaries in the UK and Europe are even lower for professors. The net effect is that fashion programs rely heavily on part-time instructors and constant turn-over as heavily on individuals who are retiring from industry and seeking “second careers.” This has made it difficult for fashion education to develop fully as a serious academic subject, as most research, innovation and expertise development is outside the academy where salaries are higher and opportunities are greater. What’s more, it has stymied a more collaborative approach–and trust–between industry and education, where professors are often seen as those that “didn’t make it” or who “weren’t up for the challenge” of a fast-paced industry.
Ultimately, a shift in balance is necessary. On the academic side, institutions must be more competitive in how they hire, pay and support fashion talent. On the industry side, it requires companies to both understand the value of educational institutions as centers of learning and research, while also understanding their limitations.
In our next episode, we will focus on the gap between the knowledge and skills students learn in school, versus the ever-changing skills and experience needed on the job and what this means for employers.