Students looking for a career in the fashion industry may face difficult choices as the global offer is extremely wide at the moment. Yet they are not the only ones facing dilemmas as many educational institutions are finding themselves facing new challenges: in the UK the impact of Brexit may have dire consequences on the numbers of students able to enroll in British universities, but it may end up having further consequences on European lecturers or on projects funded with EU money. In other countries institutions may see instead shifts in the numbers of students enrolling, maybe due to high tuition fees or competition from other universities offering similar courses. But there may be other risks coming to educational institutions – rankings. In mid-November, Parsons MFA announced indeed it was withdrawing from the Business of Fashion's School Rankings. Parsons was actually rather successful in the rankings: the MFA program entered them at N. 8 last year, while the undergraduate program secured spot N. 2 for 2017.
The official statement by Parsons MFA director Shelley Fox, was posted on the MFA Facebook page and explains in three points why the program will not be joining the rankings (you can read the full statement at the end of this post).
In the first point, Fox highlights the aim of the program and the fact that it encourages integrity, authenticity, social awareness, innovation and entrepreneurship, while prompting students to "explore, research, fail, discover, build confidence, be challenged, articulate awareness and create a real sense of responsibility in the roles they seek to fulfil".
Fox mainly disagrees with the main criteria of BoF's assessment – the rate of graduate employment. The MFA director very honestly mentions pollution, the state of the industry, and unhealthy consumerism, stating "The fashion industry is the 2nd biggest polluter in the world and is currently in a place of undeniable confusion acknowledging its slow structural collapse. This year Business of Fashion emphasized the employment rate of graduates in the fashion industry as one significant criteria in their assessment methodology. While we work with our students to become formidable designers capable for positions within the fashion industry, we cannot set a precedent for our students in presenting admission into the current fashion industry as a primary measure of success. It is irresponsible to participate in any ranking system that considers enrollment into an industry that promotes unhealthy consumerism; a behavior that has been nurtured and manipulated by the industry for the sake of revenue and growing businesses, and in return contribute to the destruction of our planet and the future of our existence. As educators we have the responsibility to prepare this new generation for a future industry – one that they want to be part of."
Fox also highlights the fact that the MFA program does not consider other institutions as competitors but as allies in providing the best education and skills to their students.
This is a very important point as too often we regard somebody who has studied in a prominent institution located in a big fashion capital as more talented or skilled than a graduate from a less known university in a smaller town.
Fox touches upon this point explaining in the statement that each institution faces different geographical and budgetary challenges, "Institutions that are geographically based in the metropolitan fashion capitols have different access to the industry opposed to institutions that operate outside of it. This aspect doesn't necessarily present an advantage or disadvantage, it merely presents a difference. A difference that should not be challenged by a rank that essentially prioritizes employment in the industry over the diversity that each institution on its own has to offer."
The Business of Fashion rankings also do not provide distinctions within programmes, but combine a series of discipline as different as Fashion Design, Fashion Studies, Textile Conservation Studies and Fashion Photography under the same label - the more generic "Fashion" - without taking into consideration the career paths such disciplines may lead to.
On top of all this, a year after launching the Global Fashion School Rankings in 2015, BoF also set up their own educational courses, ending up benefiting from the data collected from the various institutions taking part in their rankings. The publication currently seems intent on cashing in on the fame of Vogue UK drop outs: after enlisting Alexandra Shulman as monthly columnist, it was the turn of Lucinda Chambers, currently offering a Fashion Styling and Image Making course on the BoF platform.
Though Parsons clarified that its BFA program will continue to partake in the rankings, more institutions may follow the MFA example. Jennifer Menniti, Department Chair of Fashion at Pratt, supported Parsons on Facebook, stating: "Thank you, Parsons! Pratt Fashion stands in solidarity with you. We also decided to no longer participate in the rankings created by BoF for the reasons you state and for how the rankings are distributed as a vehicle for communication via social media. Thank you again for being a leader and paving the way for progressive fashion education."
Offering a tool for students to navigate in the ocean of education is perfectly fine, but providing rankings that generate hate and rivalry or that are based on biased principles is definitely not the way of doing it. Fox forgot to highlight that one of the ranking criteria is based on the average number of students in each of the BA and MA cohort who have won or been finalists of an international fashion award including among the others the LVMH Prize, Festival d'Hyères, International Woolmark Prize, CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, ANDAM and Vogue Italia "Who is on Next". Yet such awards are not general graduate fashion week prizes, but they are competitions provided/sponsored by private institutions/entities/brands and prominent fashion houses. One of them - the LVMH group - is also one of BoF's backers, and, to be frank, using the competition organised by one of your investors as a credible criteria to build university rankings could be easily considered as a conflict of interest.
Parsons made a point cosidering that nowadays too many entities are playing around with the life and money of young students (as you may remember Condé Nast Italia recently launched the risible Influencer degree...). Hopefully other institutions will highlight how charts and rankings are all fine, but honesty and transparency should go first, together with one precious piece of advice - success doesn't depend from the university a student attends, but from the way that institution inspires, helps and nurtures their creativity and minds. In a nutshell, if you're a student looking for a good university always consider facilities, lecturers' skills, courses offered, costs and fees, the possibility of getting scholarships, and your own interests and talents. You will easily discover that the best place where to study is not the one sitting at number one in a trendy chart, but the institution that allows you to refine your skills and mature and that's usually not marked by a cross like a treasure location, but it is something you have to find by yourself.