A burnout culture

As of May 2019, the term ‘burn-out’ has been included as an “occupational phenomenon” into the International Classification of Diseases, used by health practitioners internationally in order to classify, diagnose and treat psychological conditions.

A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

(ICD’s definition of burn-out)

Within Europe, workplace stress has been reported to cost 20 billion euros a year, according to the last report from the European Commission in 2002.

Psychosocial risks gauged in this report include: excessive workload and work pace; job uncertainty; inflexible work schedules; irregular, unpredictable or unsocial work hours; poor interpersonal relationships; lack of participation; unclear role in the organisation; poor communication; poor career development; and conflicting demands of work and home.

A painting of a man who is highly stressed and distressed, as many design students are

Rankings and reputation – fuelling the problem?

The highly-esteemed reputation of the fashion programme at the Antwerp Academy is one earned through the institution’s own fingerprint in shaping the history and development of fashion itself, and one that is not uncommon for a top institution in an industry where status is almost everything.

A woman wearing a dress in a red couture design

The fact that such academies within fashion and architecture continue to offer a nothing-but-challenging course of study focused on delivering top standard results must be respected in this discussion. However, the official graduation rate of the undergraduate class at the Antwerp Academy was 23 percent, according to Business of Fashion’s Global Schools Ranking 2017.

Some design students pointed to this drop-out rate as being reflective of an aim of the lecturers to ‘weed out’ the weak, suggesting a judgemental university system which focused on disempowerment, concurrent to real learning and growth. Others pointed to the Business of Fashion’s ranking system itself as having a hand in reinforcing institutions’ hype status amongst prospective students and parents – fuelling the press and prospective students to swoon at particular courses, raising them to ‘cult-like’ status.

Since the events of 2016, top fashion institutions Central St Martins in London (ranked 1st), and the Antwerp Academy (ranked 3rd) stepped out of participating in BoF’s ranking system. In 2019, BoF reconfigured their ranking criteria in order to provide a more thoughtful ranking system.

A nascent discussion within the architecture industry

Within architecture, these conversations are more fresh. Patrik Schumacher, the German principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, voiced his opinion through Facebook on what he believes to be a crisis of architectural education, attracting defensive responses from current educators.

This negative caricature of architecture education is not one I recognise. Yes, some tutors continue to treat the whole thing as an ego trip, but this is far from true across the board. And yes, it is outrageously expensive and students’ well-being is being put at risk. But these are not problems that occur only in architecture. They are endemic across the whole of higher education. And the solution – to drastically reduce or preferably, eliminate, student fees altogether – would provide much relief and not only to students of architecture.

(Sean Griffiths, Professor of Architecture at University of Westminster)

Some state that lecturers peddle their own agenda, and suggested that more diversification was needed within institutions.

Dr Jhennifer Amundson, Dean of O’More College of Architecture, Art and Design at Nashville’s Dean Belmont University, wrote on Twitter: “Perhaps not broken, but design education is less relevant when a diversified student body is taught from a small slice of history/precedents and subjected to critique by a likewise homogenous population of ‘experts’ — it’s these worn-out customs that need breaking.”

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