UOM: Let’s hear it from the teachers! (XI)

Wednesday, 07 January 2015

As the hectic month of global fashion weeks gears up to start once more, universities across the country have been opening up their doors for the start of a new semester, prepared to mould the budding textile and fashion designers who will lead the future of the industry. It is up to the fashion lecturers, professors and designers at these institutes to help guide

these students of tomorrow on their way and ensure they are ready to enter the industry when they graduate. But what are their thoughts on the current state of affairs within fashion educational institutes, designers and the industry itself? FashionUnited took a moment to speak to Dr. Liz Barnes, Senior Lecturer and Manager for Design & Fashion Business Subject Group at the School of Materials, at the University of Manchester, to hear what the teachers had to say.

FashionUnited: How did you first become involved with the fashion industry?

Dr. Liz Barnes: “It’s actually quite by accident that I ended up working in the fashion industry. I first did my undergraduate degree in Textiles at the University of Manchester. Then having done that, I went onto work in the retail sector in a marketing role for a fashion retailer for a few years before I came back to the educational side of things.”

What drew you to a teaching role?

“I probably don’t see myself so much as a teacher, I see myself more as someone who is working in education and part of my role involves teaching. But I also have many additional things that I do within my role, such as academic research in related fashion marketing, as well as working with students a lot, so it is quite a varied role. I also do a lot of work in teaching, learning and innovation as well as managing students experience. So the teaching part of my role is just one part of the many things I do.”

“Why I was interested in taking on a teaching role came from when I was working in the commercial field for a couple of years. Although I really enjoyed it and I enjoyed the fast pace of working in a commercial world, I felt that I was limited in the ways I was able to achieve what I had set out to do. So in some ways I felt like I did not have a lot of space in terms of decision making and the freedom of thinking in certain a way. Where as working in a university, you have the flexibility to focus on what you want to focus on. For example, when I am doing my research, it is always research that I find personally interesting, so I am able to manage that and have ownership of it and make choices about my career.”

Why did you decide to return to Manchester University?

“Because it is one of the best universities in the world. It is also partly because I did my undergraduate degree here, I have an emotional attachment to the university as well in that sense, but generally speaking the university is one of the best globally and there was a real opportunity for me to come into a department where there were huge amounts of growth. We were growing with student number, growing staff team and there was a chance for me to come on board and move things forward with a subject I am really passionate about.”

What aspect of your role at the UOM do you enjoy the most and why?

“Well I enjoy most of it, although marking can be a bit tedious, but it always is nice to see what the students have achieved and come up within the various tasks they are set. But I really enjoy working with young people, the students surprise me every day with the things they do and say and aim to achieve and I enjoy helping them achieve their goals as well. I also enjoy working with a great team of people, both students and staff.”

How do you feel about today's fashion educational institutions and their current course offering in comparison to the courses UOM offers?

“We don’t really see ourselves as a fashion school particularly, which is probably quite a strange thing to say because all of our courses within the School of Materials are called fashion in some way or another. But most other fashion schools are roofed in arts, so they offer bachelors of arts or masters of arts, were as all our course offerings as BSc (Bachelor of Science) programmes. We are quite different in the market compared with other fashion institutes; we are rooted in a scientific field, which is the underpinning to what we do. In terms of the fashion side, the courses we offer are much more business focused than designed focused, although there is also an aspect of design and creative thinking in terms of what we do, most of it is either commercially or business focused, or has a scientific underpinning which comes historically from a textile science and technology and the expertise we have here at the university. So all our courses have that as part of their offering and that really helps students understand the technical side of garments from fibre right through to the finished piece. We deliberately want to ensure that we stand out with that uniqueness of our course offering.”

“Employers also tell us that we stand out in a good way. I fundamentally believe we are unique in a good way, but that does not mean at all that there isn't a place for the arts courses, there absolutely is. One of the things we talk about when students come to visit our school during the open days is to look at the differences and make the right choices before deciding where to apply. This is just our position and what our courses are about, but employers within the industry do tell us that our graduates have that technical understanding about the product, which sets them apart. So for example, students who want to go on to become a fashion buyer and have a role as a knitwear buyer will benefit from the courses we offer because they will have sufficient technical understanding regarding knitted products, through from the fibre used to create the yarns and the knitted fabrics which are used to create the garments, to the item’s construction and how the garment will wash, wear, quality and age with time. So having that type of technical language engrained equips our students with an additional edge to ensure they can work effectively within the industry and have good product knowledge, something which employers also tell us they are looking for.”

Do you think it is important for fashion schools to be aware of changing trends within the industry and adapt their courses accordingly?

“Yes absolutely, and I think that there are two ways institutes can do that as well. One is by doing it from an industry point of view, by getting employers and individuals from the industry involved in curriculum development, course changes and offering guest lectures, things like that. This is important in many ways because it helps students get motivated whilst building their relationships with the industry and working on their employability skills.”

“But then there is the other side of it, which comes from academic research and looking at theory building and what is going on in the real world. This is another aspect that sets what we do at the University of Manchester from other institutes. All of our teaching here is research led, all of my colleagues and the staff at the school are involved in academic research linked to the fashion industry in some way, whether it be marketing, or body scanning technology, or garment technology. I have colleagues carrying out research which looks at the impact of consumer sizing, body image and the consumer’s changing fashion appetite, so there are lots of different research projects going on at the moment which are very current and innovative that used very much to feed into the teaching side of their roles.”

How important do you think it is for individuals to create links and contacts within the fashion industry whilst earning a degree or teaching at an educational institution?

“It is absolutely vital, no doubt about it. It is one of the most important thing a student can do while they are attending school. I think one of the mistake many students tend to make is that they concentrate too much on their academic success. Which is very important as well, we want them to achieve their best and be the best that they can be, but at the same time they can not do that at the expense of all the other vital factors in their degree. Making connections, getting involved in other activities, enhancing their employability skills by applying for competitions or doing work placements long or short, getting involved in networks - these are all important things which will help the student get their job at the end of their studies. It is very much about the two sides and you cannot ignore other aspects which also enhance employability as a student. increasingly I see students getting jobs or work placement through connections, rather than open recruiting, highlighting how it is very much about who you know rather than what you know.”

“I do think it is hard for universities lecturers to have an active role within the industry due to the increasing pressures of the job they are paid for, but I think that it is important that lecturers keep up to date and understand what is going on in the industry. Either by being active at industry events, going to various network events, visiting work placements locations, so I think it is very important if you are involved in teaching to make sure you are up to date with all changes, but not necessarily active per say.”

And lastly, what is the one main piece of advice you would give a student graduating from Manchester and embarking on the start of their career within the industry?

“My best piece of advice is in the workplace they should always be nice! Because you never know when you may meet those people again, the industry is really quite small, so do not burn your bridges. The best chance of career progression comes from being a good colleague, someone who is good to work with, which will later become part of your reputation. So that is my tip, be nice.”