Market forces lead to a rise in courses for horses

May 10, 2002

In the third in our five-part series Pushing 50, Sean Coughlan looks at the growth of vocational degrees while Adamantios Diamantopoulos, assesses how teaching on one of the most popular courses has been affected.

Vocational courses have never been more popular, with their work-linked pulling power outstripping the dusty allure of traditional academic degrees. But would universities still really be universities without such faithful old retainers as history, modern languages and physics? And at what point are courses so diluted by vocational demands that they become training rather than higher education?

And is there even any point asking these questions if you cannot get enough students to apply for these traditional subjects?

The application figures for this autumn show there are more students seeking management and business studies courses than chemistry, physics, maths, biology, geography and modern languages added together. There are also more students seeking to study computer science and information systems than English and history put together.

This triumph of vocational courses is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it is certainly a money thing. Because what students demand, the universities need to supply and this can mean scrapping degrees that don't pull in the punters.

As an example, Oxford Brookes is closing courses in environmental and biological chemistry, geology, civil engineering and cartography. University spokesperson Gill Sanders says: "They've failed to recruit and are no longer economically viable. This is a student-driven process. They have a very clear idea about courses and employment opportunities. And universities have to respond to these market forces."

As one area contracts, others expand. At Oxford Brookes there has been an upsurge in interest in courses such as automotive engineering, media technology and biotechnology, all linked to local industries.

This process of change is nothing new, Sanders says, and it could be that increased competition will mean that universities will have to offer a more distinctive, more specialised set of courses, rather than a complete range.

As well as forcing closures, the rise in demand for vocational courses has seen traditional subjects generating their own vocational equivalents. For example, dozens of history departments are now offering "heritage" courses, which prepare students for work in museums and conservation.

Modern languages, which has also struggled to find applicants, can resurface as part of a business course, no longer rooted in literature and culture, but shifted towards a more practical application of a skill.

According to the University Council for Modern Languages, three-quarters of institutions have already cut at least one language in recent years, in response to a lack of student demand. "Languages could become an endangered species," says the council's chair, Hilary Footitt.

She highlights the dangers of making the national provision of courses reliant on the internal economics of individual universities. While it is widely accepted that there is a national need for more linguists, individual universities have to offer or withdraw courses depending on their financial viability, regardless of any wider interest.

Given the need for cultural understanding and the globalisation of business, she attacks the short-sightedness of closing courses in languages such as Arabic and Portuguese.

"The events of September 11 should have ended once and for all the 'English is enough' mantra which is a disgrace to hear uttered in a university."

But the decline in applicants is not something languages departments can easily address - the number of A-level students taking languages has fallen. At South Bank University, a degree in French and German had to be withdrawn because of a lack of students. The only place left for languages at South Bank is as part of a business course.

But are vocational courses really the best way of preparing young minds for the future? Or is this just a form of anti-intellectualism, putting industry before ideas?

Tim Thornton, head of history at the University of Huddersfield, says that it is "demonstrably untrue that employment chances are improved by vocational courses" and that the drive towards vocationalism is a hangover from the 1980s.

"I don't feel at all pessimistic about the future of a subject such as history in new universities. If we're going to be universities, we must be absolutely clear that it is higher education and not skills training that we're offering. The moment has passed when we need to prepare people for narrow industrial roles."

He argues that a historian's trained analytical mind is more adaptable to a changing economy than the student who has been taught a more narrow range of work-related skills that might be out of date in a few years. And he warns against a growing divide between academic and vocational education.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has observed the growing trend in applications for subjects such as business and management, but he robustly rejects any fears over the growth in vocational courses.

"It's complete snobbery. For centuries, universities have taught vocational subjects such as medicine and law. Times change and courses have to change, it's not better or worse, just different. Universities can't say no to what students want to study."

He dismisses the idea that subjects such as tourism or media studies are of less value than traditional courses. "In the 1970s there were similar debates about the value of sociology, which was written off by some people as just something for long-haired trendies."

People might mock a course such as equine studies, but the horse industry is a massive revenue earner, Higgins says, adding the rider that it was "courses for horses, as well as horses for courses".

And he warns against any false nostalgia for subjects. "If you want to study French, do you really need to read Zola or Proust? Wouldn't it be more useful to learn about applying the language, perhaps as part of another subject?"

Over-milking cash cows will tarnish reputation

Student demand for business and management studies has soared and has been accompanied by a proliferation of taught programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

For many universities, business schools are key "strategic business units" (aka cash cows) for meeting recruitment targets and subsidising other departments and activities. Thus business schools have been encouraged to expand, despite the lack of sufficient new PhDs to meet their need for staff. In fact, most students doing doctoral programmes are foreign and only a fraction can be expected to stay in the UK to pursue an academic career.

So, how have business schools been able to expand? Some have recruited staff from other UK business schools and, less frequently, from abroad. But in the sector as a whole, it seems that many academic positions have been offered to individuals who would not have been successful under "normal circumstances".

Pressures to cover teaching and the increasing administrative burden have resulted in "pragmatic" solutions: teaching-only contracts; part-time positions; supply teaching; and, in areas of acute staff shortages, highly attractive full-time posts (it is not unknown for a senior lectureship to be offered to an individual without a PhD and with very little in the way of scholarly publications).

Since demand far exceeds the supply of suitably qualified staff, business schools either have to substantially increase the teaching and administrative loads of their strong researchers (and thus risk a drop in their research assessment exercise ratings) or bring in staff lacking in academic qualifications and/or scholarly motivation.

Although both solutions are unpalatable, the latter is usually opted for, with the tacit agreement of the "true" scholars, not least because the academic labour market in business and management is a seller's market.

The scale of the problem is shown by the most recent RAE:the much-lower-than-average number of business and management staff working in 5 and 5* institutions and the fact that more than a third put forward less than 40 per cent of research staff for the exercise.

Cynics would argue that this is a non-issue. Surely anyone can teach business studies. Why would one need a PhD or a commitment to scholarship to teach it? Well, unless the fundamental difference between education and training is restored, soon enough anybody will be doing it.

Adamantios Diamantopoulos is research director at Loughborough University's Business School.

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