Hands-on era reaches lift off

October 31, 1997

Critics call them Noddy courses, but more and more students are opting for highly vocational study

NEW breeds of highly vocational degrees are growing rapidly to meet student demand to be trained for a specific career.

Courses such as physiotherapy and sports science, and courses providing the highly selective, high-tech skills for growth industries, such as cinematics and animation, are becoming extremely popular.

Last year there were 710 places for 1,976 applicants for media courses covering photography, film and video, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. In fashion, there were 1,690 applications for only 800 places. Applications for degrees in cinematics were up by over 15 per cent to 12,798, latest figures show.

Clearly many such fledgling courses have already won respect from the students clamouring to get on them. But many programmes are still struggling for the approval of the employers in their fields, let alone their academic peers.

Last month the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, told a conference at Warwick University that there was a worrying proliferation of "noddy courses" which should never have been offered as degrees. Included in his assault were golf course studies, accommodation management and horse studies.

Mr Woodhead touched a nerve with his latest onslaught. In a climate where Oxford dons this year came close to rejecting a Pounds 20 million gift, partly because some disputed the academic credentials of business studies, many of the new vocational courses have an uphill struggle to be accepted.

"Some of these newer courses are a long way from respected vocational courses such as medicine and law," explains Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Employers. "A very detailed vocational course can limit a student's prospects. Employers are looking for academic rigour. And many of these new courses simply don't have that rigour."

He added: "A very specific course, for example in equestrian studies, is fine for a post that requires those skills, but would be useless in any other job."

The main problem is the gap between students' perception of their job prospects and their actual job prospects, said Mr Cockman. He feared that students were often misguided, and that institutions may be cashing in on misplaced demand, offering what the students wanted, not what the world needed.

The phenomenon is illustrated by media studies courses, for which there were 14,233 applications by May 1997, yet "people studying media studies have no better job prospects than anyone with a more traditional degree," he said.

The leaders of the new vocational courses are fighting to win over reluctant employers and traditional academics. Some believe they are succeeding.

"We had one graduate last year who walked into an Pounds 18,000-a-year job," said Alan Price, deputy head of the visual communications department at the University of Central England, whose courses include cartooning. "They all seem to do all right and I'm not surprised. There is real demand for illustrated animation and we work closely with the industry and give them what they want - and this includes transferable skills. We make sure our students do a bit of everything in their first year before they specialise."

This year there were 1,300 applicants for 100 places on the visual communication course.

Perhaps an IT course is slightly easier to defend against the academic elitists than a degree in pop music. "We come across snobbery from both the industry and the academics daily," said Robin Dewhurst, who runs a BA in popular music and recording at Salford University.

As far as graduate employability is concerned, Mr Dewhurst can not make any promises.

"There are a lot of other vocational courses which align more solidly with their industries than popular music," he conceded. "The music business is fragmented and not at all straightforward."

Nor can he even promise enthusiasm from the industry. "The music industry often says it doesn't need graduates," he said. "It has its own status quo and there is a real sense of a school tie set-up where they vet their own people."

But he believes that this will have to change. "The status quo will have to be challenged in the longer term," he said. "With more and more critically aware graduates coming out, they simply cannot be ignored.

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