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“We don’t offer wine tasting; we don’t offer circus act training, we offer serious fashion education.”
Gary Pritchard, vice-principal of the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, is responding to a question about the institution’s position in a London Evening Standard article about the “wackiest courses in the capital”.
Condé Nast is sandwiched between a BA in circus arts offered by Circus Space – a “leading provider in circus training” – and courses from the in-house school of wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd.
Not that Pritchard is fazed. “I’ve got no big beef with [the Standard]; they said they were interested in new ways of learning,” he says. “What I do have a beef with is if someone was to suggest we lack the integrity and scholarly underpinning we clearly have here.”
Those are indeed charges the college has had to counter. Since its opening in April this year, it has taken flak from some quarters questioning its academic rigour.
“When ‘new kids on the block’ arrive, I guess inevitably some people will make judgements before they realise what we’re about,” says Pritchard.
“We’ve never made any great secret about the fact that we’re not here to resolve the whole of fashion higher education.”
He says the college has been “very careful” to build its one-year diploma in fashion studies using a mix of industry experts and people already teaching in higher education to create a “real hybrid” that is different from other offerings in fashion education.
“I’m always cautious about describing us as a ‘vocational college’ because in the UK I think we’re slightly sniffy about that. Some people cut to a stereotype of a further education environment. The balance between the scholarly and the vocational, in my view, isn’t a choice of ‘either/or’; it can be both.
“Even though our students are coming with a vocational horizon ahead, we never compromise on the scholarly aspect. To challenge them in both those areas is very important.”
Leaving committees behind
The question of academic rigour is one that Pritchard was also determined to address from the start. As a former associate dean at the University of Wales, Newport, he says he was keen to take many of the frameworks of the traditional higher education sector across to Condé Nast, while leaving behind undesirable aspects.
“The definite upside is moving into a culture that’s very light on its feet,” he says. “We’re able to adjust quickly [to students’ needs and wishes]. Without getting into a big moanfest, it’s been delightful not being locked into that whole [academic] committee system.
“I was on at least seven to 10 committees in my old job and most of my time was taken up being on them or responding to their outputs. Being here with a slimmed-down…model allows me to be much more strategic and we can make and implement decisions quicker.”
It is this adaptability that gives his institution the advantage over “state” higher education institutions, he claims.
“There are some great people there doing some great things, but I think the whole cumbersome juggernaut of a university [meant]…I got to the stage where I was hugely frustrated with the slow pace of change.”
Moreover, he believes a “perfect storm” is currently brewing in the academy, fuelled by the increase in student fees.
“If my colleagues [in the publicly funded sector] were able to say all that increase in fees was going into the student experience, that would be a good thing,” he says.
“We all know that that isn’t the case. While government funding is going down, the increase in resource has to go up by drawing on fees, but that isn’t going to student support.”
How, then, does the Condé Nast College justify the £19,560 it charges for its year-long Vogue Fashion foundation diploma?
“We are a private organisation so we don’t get any funding from government. Like any other business we have to make it wash its face,” he says.
“There’s been a massive investment from Condé Nast and we will live or die on whether we’re able to deliver on what we say we are. So far, we are [delivering].”
He adds that the college already offers several full scholarships for its one-year course, and it plans to increase that number.
“I studied in America for a while and the whole private/state landscape is much more mature,” he says.
“People realise that you go to different institutions for different reasons. We’re in the early days of that in the UK and it’s a question of people realising that our offer is very particular and specialist.”
Best of Britain
Pritchard is also committed to keeping his college aligned with higher education institutions. The “gold standard” of UK education is that international students are “still very interested in coming over and doing the best courses in this country”.
“To do that you need to have world-class teaching, world-class research within that context and we are doing both,” Pritchard asserts.
“It’s not a question of trying to be so different that you jettison all the great things of higher education [but] one of my frustrations is that [universities] usually say: here’s our curriculum, come and engage in our courses and we’ll tell you where you fit on the talent spectrum. [That] lacks integrity.
“Often we’re calling students average or less because we’re not giving them the environment to flourish in their talent. The expansion of higher education and the sheer pressure on that infrastructure legislates against [students].”
So what does the future hold? The college is in the process of creating an undergraduate and master’s programme, and plans to unveil them in two years.
“I made a decision at the beginning of my tenure here that we would operate as though we were under the [Quality Assurance Agency],” he says.
“Everything that I’ve brought across from higher education is embedded in the college, so that when we make that transition [to offering degrees] everything will be in place.”
In that case, does Pritchard see scope for a Condé Nast University of Fashion and Design?
“Who knows? That could be where we end up. I think in any kind of evolving organisation you have the highest possible ambitions.”