Freedom to experiment

Being creative without commercial pressure is a privilege enjoyed only in higher education, says Zandra Rhodes

April 29, 2010

My own higher education journey started at the Medway College of Art, where I did what was then known as an "Intermediate" followed by an NDD, a National Diploma of Design. After that I applied to the Royal College of Art, where I did a three-year course on printed textiles.

Once I got there, I loved being at college - I never wanted to leave. Once you do go out to work, you have to concentrate on doing things that are going to bring you in enough money to survive, whereas when you're at college, you're able to let your mind run free and work on advancing your designs.

My time at the Royal College of Art was an extremely creative period for me: I've just finished doing the rough drafts of a book of my work which covers 1961 to 1964 - when I left the Royal College - until 1971, when I set up for myself. It's clear to see that during that time I felt free to experiment: it wasn't about "will this design sell?", it was more about creating new work where I didn't have to worry about the work being commercial. I think higher education allows students to have that space. If you go into work, you have to concentrate on that; whereas if you choose to be a student, that is, in essence, your job.

Higher education also gives you the opportunity to learn practical skills that are going to help you in later life. You learn the basics and then you have a certain amount of time to develop your talent. You have to work as hard as you can, because there are so many people in the marketplace that you need to make yourself stand out to go forward.

It was higher education that made my career; without it I wouldn't have been able to have learned how to print textiles. I suppose I could have done that in a factory, but then I wouldn't necessarily have been designing.

If people don't go into higher education, you may as well just have factories, and there are hardly any of those left in our poor little country. Higher education allows you to mix with the best and become the best.

The eight honorary doctorates I've received from universities mean a lot to me. It's a great honour to be recognised for what you do and be a figurehead to a new generation of designers. As chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, I hope to be an inspirational figure who can provide advice to students. Obviously, I have a day-to-day business to run, but I am happy to give guidance and advice - as well as to give out the diplomas, of course. I see my appointment as chancellor as a real mark of respect for the work I've done and I'm pleased that they think I'm enough of a worthwhile person to represent the university and help shape the future of the UK.

I'm a firm believer in education, and I think the people that you come into contact with in higher education serves you for the rest of your life. I think sometimes parents don't say how exciting education is and where it can lead you, and there are children with extraordinary talents whose desire to progress is annihilated out of them.

The burden of communicating the value of higher education falls on the teachers, and I was extremely lucky with the teachers I had at Medway and at the Royal College of Art.

The one thing I would stress to anybody is that whatever you do in life, if you don't put things into it, you won't get anything out. Too much is laid on for students, and the fact is you can do the social aspect of things later in life. Education is the only thing that will get you from A to B. Life is a series of examinations, there's no soft option.

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