Degree in plumbing - why not?

January 23, 2004

The division between academic and vocational education is increasingly meaningless, if not counterproductive ("Vocation is not just foundation", Leader, THES , January 16).

Most university courses, whether engineering, accountancy, law or tourism, are vocational. Even classics and philosophy, politics and economics have proved vocational for politicians and civil servants.

Other countries do not appear to have the same difficulty with the two words. Why do we? We will not make real progress unless we overcome the particularly British divisive separation of academic and vocational subjects and our approach to teaching them.

To maintain there is no meaningful difference does not mean that all institutions should do the same thing in the same way. The question "what do we mean by a university education?" is still critical. A minimum package is necessary for the title university, as well as an accepted framework to maintain basic standards.

But why should universities be the vehicle for academic education and other institutions for vocational? Why should training doctors be an acceptable university programme and (until recently) the training of nurses not?

Maybe it is because historically doctors were men and nurses women? Most people have more potential than they are usually given credit for.

Individual motivation is the main factor that influences the development of that potential.

There is no incompatibility between theory and practice - remember there is nothing as practical as a theory that works. A good plumber needs to know as much theory as a good chemical engineer. What is fundamentally wrong with that subject also being part of a university curriculum?

There is also no reason why a plumber could not have (say) a degree in English literature as well as a plumbing qualification. If that were the case, the individual should not be criticised for "wasting" their university education.

Whether there should be a different level of public support for students studying plumbing or literature, and what criteria we use for deciding that difference, is another question.

Bruce Lloyd
Professor of strategic management
London South Bank University

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