Analysis: Those 'Mickey Mouse' degrees are having the last laugh

November 15, 2002

It is not just medicine and law that prove popular with students and employers, 'quasi-academic' degrees are winning favour. The THES reports.

Critics of media studies and other non-traditional courses will have to eat their words this week after the release of figures that show media graduates to be the most employable university leavers.

The growing numbers of departments brave enough to shift from established disciplines in favour of new courses that students want to study have found themselves under fire from commentators such as Chris Woodhead for some years. The former chief inspector of schools joins other traditionalists in accusing them of threatening the liberal tradition of higher education by offering vocational training thinly veiled as "quasi-academic degrees".

According to Mr Woodhead, such courses have "sacrificed the integrity of vocational training on the altar of vacuous theoretical convolution". He also claimed that they did not even equip students for a job in the media.

Phil Taylor, professor of communications at Leeds University and a former historian, said that media studies was one of the most relevant academic disciplines available to undergraduates and that it was time it was afforded some respect. "I hope this news finally lays to rest the myth that media studies fails to prepare students for the modern world," he said.

"This debate is strangely reminiscent of the struggle sociologists faced in the 1960s before the arrival of Anthony Giddens, who gave them the ultimate mark of respectability. The same thing will eventually happen in media studies but it's now time the 'Mickey Mouse' jibes were silenced once and for all," Professor Taylor said.

Supporters of the new degree courses argue that job prospects are plentiful and that the market approach to higher education is working.

Teesside University's BSc in youth studies is a case in point. Criticised from the start by The Daily Telegraph , which was quick to question its academic value, the course has gone from strength to strength and a masters programme is on the drawing board. Lecturer Tony Chapman said: "We think we have discovered a niche here and we have a head start in a market that is only just dawning on other universities. The newspapers have questioned why anyone would want to study 'youths with problems', which is, of course, exactly the point."

Dr Chapman pointed to the enormous capacity for youth work in Teesside's disadvantaged community, which suffers from high unemployment and an array of social problems. He said he was "100 per cent confident" that job prospects arising from the course were excellent and would continue to grow.

Course leader Tracy Shildrick said: "Working with young people is an expanding employment area and we have designed a programme that appeals to a wide range of people and prepares them for working in many different occupations. The course examines topical issues and draws on the work of staff who are actively engaged in researching young people in the Teesside area."

Dr Chapman said the course was a gamble to start with. He described the youth studies BSc as an intellectual programme with a vocational element. He said that it appealed to many non-traditional and mature students because it was not as theory-driven as other courses. It also draws on a variety of disciplines including psychology, criminology, social policy, sociology and politics.

Course graduate Philip Robinson left school at 16 and worked as a shop sales assistant when his plan to join the Royal Marines fell through. He returned to education at the age of 22, enrolling on a psychology course at night class and later an access course at Cleveland College.

He said:"I always felt I'd be suited to youth work. I'm interested in excluded youth and when I saw a leaflet about the youth studies degree I thought, 'that's what I want to do'."

Mr Robinson is now working with Coatham House, a lottery-funded project designed to support teenage mothers. "I really didn't work at school but now I know what I want out of life," he said. "Going to university was the best decision I ever made and it helped me to get this job."

Fellow graduate Helen Ripley was also a mature course entrant. She said: "I was originally going to study sociology, but I knew I wanted to work with young people so it was the ideal choice."

Ms Ripley worked in insurance for seven years before deciding to apply for university and now works for Connexions, the government's support service for young people. She said that she was enjoying putting theories learnt at Teesside into practice.

While many innovative courses are based in new universities, some older institutions are also experimenting. The University of Hull, for instance, has a degree course in creative music technology that has grown up out of an older, more traditional music programme.

Course director Tim Howle explained that it was thoroughly market driven. "There is an over-capacity of traditional music courses at the moment and what some academics have yet to realise is that young people's experience of music is often at the popular end, either through listening, recording or producing. And while quite a few courses deal purely with the technical side of recording engineering, we are trying to generate a much wider musical literacy."

Musical history is an important element of the Hull programme, although the course has adopted a new approach that takes account of the growth of digital and computer technology in developing new music.

The course is oversubscribed and has grown by 50 per cent over the past year. "There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the futures for music education," Dr Howle said. "Of course we still need the conservatoires and the classical performers but we also need more culturally relevant people. This is a growth industry and jobs are plentiful, but at the same time the skills we teach here - composition, analysis, self-expression, writing - are all transferable."

As well as the performance field, students have forged careers in areas such as music therapy, teaching, arts administration, librarianship and broadcasting. "There is such a lot going on. This is one of the most exciting fields to be working in at the current time," Dr Howle said.

Leeds Metropolitan University has a BSc in physical activity, exercise and health. Another trendy fad or a worthwhile field of academic study? Andy Pringle, the course leader, is a passionate advocate of exercise to improve health and insists his programme was designed to bridge a gap in the market not met by more traditional sports-science degrees.

"While there are many strong courses in leisure and sports management, we didn't feel that issues around public health and non-performance-based physical activity were being sufficiently addressed," he said. "The health of the general population is the bedrock of our work here and it is an area of key governmental concern that incorporates social exclusion. Our perspective here is quite unique and especially relevant in the current climate."

The course has been running for five years. Dr Pringle said that graduates had no problem gaining employment in a growing field. They have become fitness trainers, corporate health advisers, physical activity development officers, walking or cycling coordinators and cardiac rehabilitation workers.

"Traditional sport is not suitable for everyone and we take activities such as walking, dancing, orienteering and gardening just as seriously here," Dr Pringle said. "Local authorities are putting a lot more effort into health promotion and physical activity is often the starting point as the challenges brought about by sedentary lifestyles come to the fore."

Students on the programme study psychology, sociology and health policy as well as biomechanics and exercise physiology. Dr Pringle said the course was as academically demanding as more traditional degrees. "If people have an image of our students just kicking a ball around, then they would be very much mistaken," he said.

Graduate James Hepworth said that when he began his course three years ago he was quite naive: "I wanted to play football all day. So when I found I was spending so much time learning about politics and psychology I began to wonder what all this had to do with me. It took about a year before everything fell into place."

Mr Hepworth said the course was the best possible starting point for his career. He has begun working for the health, education and youth service in Leeds as a physical activity support worker, encouraging young people to get involved in outdoor pursuits that will make a real difference to their health in later life.

Martin Rivett, 31, has also gained a new perspective from his studies. He was a postman for eight years before beginning the course at LMU. Now a cardiac rehabilitation worker, Mr Rivett is also lecturing part time.

The growing number of lecturers working in golf-course management are used to sneering comments about their academic credentials, but Paul Rock, course leader in golf and leisure management at Lincoln University, is unabashed.

He said some 80 per cent of his students went into employment in the sector and a university was the right place to prepare them. "There are some academics out there who need to wake up to the real world, and wake up fast," Mr Rock said.

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