Alex Hill, Lecturer BA (Hons) Fashion Communication and Promotion at Norwich University of the Arts, explores the importance of work experience within fashion education.

As a Lecturer, teaching Fashion Communication and Promotion within the HE sector, the importance of work experience is a subject that continually rears its head. So is it really THAT important?

Fashion Communication and Promotion is a varied subject that covers a vast number of related topics, from Marketing to Retail Displays and Trend Forecasting to Photography. With such an extensive theory base to cover the risk is that students may become surface learners in order to cover this vast amount of material.

With a surface approach student learning comes from “the intention to get the task out of the way with minimum trouble while appearing to meet course requirements” (Biggs, 2003, p14). Rather than gaining a substantial understanding of the core subjects students will memorise information but will be unable to make links, engage in valuable discussion or apply the knowledge accurately. In contrast the deep approach comes “from a felt need to engage the task appropriately and meaningfully, so the student tries to use the most appropriate cognitive activities for handling it” (Biggs, 2003, p16). Unlike surface learners these students will engage in the learning process, making connections with and truly understanding what they are learning. From here the student can see their learning as a part of the bigger picture of their wider learning journey, that this is the first step in their professional careers.

So how can a deeper level of learning be achieved? One approach is to explore the application of Experience Based Learning (EBL), the practice whereby students learn through experience. Boud, Choen and Walker (1993) identified that “Experience is the foundation, and the stimulus for, learning”. I intend to explore how the application of Experience Based learning could improve student skills, knowledge and potentially engagement through a more participative learner-centered approach.

Essentially EBL is based on a set of assumptions about learning from experience. At the heart of the approach is the notion that experience is the foundation, if not the stimulus, for learning. If a students learning journey is kick-started by an experience they have had then they will be more likely to actively construct their own further relevant experiences. With greater active participation the hope is that greater engagement will follow.

The demands of the Fashion Industry today on our graduating students are increasingly placing importance on the need to showcase industry awareness and experience. The recent 2015 Education report from The Business of Fashion highlighted the need to reflect industry requirements, Frances Corner (Head of the London College of Fashion) stated “Fashion schools need to reinforce the links between design education and the skill-set the industry requires”.  Therefore, it is imperative that we investigate how to bridge this gap for our students – we must forge the links between education and industry.

In 2015 The Business of Fashion conducted a report in to the Fashion Education System. The report examined the ongoing conflict within the UK fashion education system between the need to inspire creativity and the industry requirement for business skills and industry readiness. Frances Corner, Head of the London College of Fashion, commented that “bringing together disciplines to mix creativity with business understanding is vital for future generations of our students, and the economy”. Students sampled within the report fed back that they felt “unequipped with the practical skills and training they need to thrive once the enter employment”.

The 2013 Creative Skills Set panel discussion on “Work Experience Works - Achieving Industry Best Practice” provided two key discussion points; the importance of work placements, and the role they play in attracting students to Universities in the current landscape. Firstly the importance and value of work placements was stressed by industry and HE professionals alike. Kate Beale, Managing Director of Talent South TV, stated “I would not take on anyone who had not had any kind of work experience - it’s too risky”. Graham Thompson, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Sunderland, commented on the changing landscape of the HE sector noting “Universities increasingly are going to be selected by students and their facilities on the basis of whether the course an offer is capable of helping them get a job or not”.

The emphasis is clear, HE providers need to be addressing the demand for valuable work experience placed on graduating students within the creative industry. The implication for those operating within the Higher Education arena is the need to embed transferable skills and make work based learning opportunities available to a diverse range of students within our curriculum. There is however potential challenges facing HE providers (and their course teams) when engaging with the practice of Work Experience. These included the lack of contacts in recognised industry employers, the lack of time for academic staff to set-up work placement systems and the lack of time and skill to adequately assess the value of the placements provided.

The Institute for Employment Studies (2010) Creative Graduates, Creative Futures Creative Graduate Stories Report provided an insight into the thoughts and reflections on graduating creatives.  Building relationships with industry professionals was fundamental with over half of graduates seeing work experience as essential to finding work and gaining insights into future working practices. The report endorsed the theory that the pedagogic model of ‘learning by doing’ can have a positive impact on skills, knowledge and engagement, stating that by underpinning the curriculum with EBL activities provided a variety of opportunities to develop skills and experiences useful to the work place. Placements and industrial experiences of all kinds were considered critical for credibility, building a reputation and opening up opportunities for the future. The report raised the question how can HE improve how we prepare students for their working lives? The report provided some guidance, advocating work placements and industrial experience, real world learning through interactions with industry partners and employers.

It is clear that the delivery of fashion education (including that of FCP) is unique, the emphasis is not placed solely on either knowledge or skills, instead students must be provided with a 360 degree education programme that provides them with the academic theory and skills experience required to break into the industry.

All of which makes for an exciting and diverse educational experience...

(This work was originally included within a wider Action Research Report: DOES WORK SHADOWING IMPROVE SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE AND ENGAGEMENT? 2016 by Alex Hill)