Hospitality gurus

May 10, 1996

Conrad Lashley reveals how a huge profit-making industry is lampooned.

It is high time that the press and the academic establishment changed their views about the nature and quality of hospitality management education. On the one hand these courses are used to symbolise all that is peculiar about the new universities, while on the other ignorance of the aims and content of these programmes leads commentators to assume that students gain degrees for frying chips and flipping burgers.

It is not accidental that when the creative juices are drying up and there is a need for a cheap laugh, writers have invented course titles such as BA (Hons) Omelette Making (Brown Shell) as examples of the reduction in education standards and the introduction of subjects that are not suitable for degree-level education.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in hospitality management are about the study of, and the study for, management in a diverse and complex industry. It is an industry that includes organisations from hotels to hospitals, from fast food to five-star restaurants. As the recent Forte/Granada takeover battle shows, the industry involves some of the economy's biggest companies, employing almost 10 per cent of the workforce.

Definitions of "graduateness" are similar to those applied in other disciplines. Programmes aim to develop graduates who are "reflective practitioners", who possess a good range of transferable skills, who are also able to be innovative, who exercise personal initiative and who are analytical in their approach to situations. While courses are aimed at a particular cluster of occupations, they are concerned to develop individuals beyond workplace situations.

The curriculum includes a range of both applied social sciences, and subjects common to most programmes in business management. Students do sometimes work in training kitchens, restaurants, and bars, but this is in the context of learning about operations management. Kitchen and restaurant areas provide a wonderful forum in which students can experiment, apply theories and concepts, and evaluate situations. Students usually graduate having undertaken three full academic years of study plus one year of industrial experience in a hospitality organisation.

Generally, graduates from these programmes are extremely attractive to employers and most quickly gain employment. There are many opportunities in the hospitality industry. The range and diversity of the industry means that even when some sectors are in recession, others are growing.

Over the past decade, the industry has created an average of 38,000 jobs each year. It is hard to find other British industries to match this. The Hotel and Catering Training Company's last report in 1992 on future employment needs suggested that the industry requires some 29,000 managers per year just to meet replacement and growth needs, and they estimated output from hospitality management courses at 2,000 per year. Even allowing for some increase in students graduating since then, and widespread de-layering in major companies, there is still a large shortfall of graduates to meet the demand for managers.

As an academic community, hospitality management educators demonstrate much good practice that could be used as an exemplar by others. Almost all universities and colleges offering courses in hospitality management are members of the Council for Hospitality Management Education which aims to promote research activities, improve teaching and learning, develop links with industry and promote the interests of hospitality management education.

Through its research group, the council organises an annual research conference that aims to promote good research and encourage new researchers in the field. Nottingham Trent University has just hosted the fifth Annual Hospitality Research Conference. Ninety delegates from 30 universities and colleges attended and received over 40 presentations on a range of social science and management topics related to the industry.

The council also sponsors an annual conference promoting innovations in teaching and learning jointly with Leeds Metropolitan University. Heads of departments in member colleges and universities attend twice-yearly CHME meetings to share current problems and to inform members about education developments.

Although technically competitors for a finite number of students, colleagues have worked together to promote the health, quality and vigour of hospitality management education in the United Kingdom.

I suppose the status of hospitality management education suffers through a number of prejudices in society and the mass media. As an industry, hospitality is largely disregarded and its significance misunderstood. The British seem to be locked into a history of "oily rag industries" and being the "workshop of the world".

In this mindset, service industries in general and the hospitality industry in particular, with its symbolic link to domestic labour and big-house servility, are not classed as real work. I know of people in a high unemployment, economically depressed former mining area who do not want their sons to apply for available jobs in the hotel industry because they are afraid of them "becoming puffs".

Setting aside the offensive language, this is ludicrous but is it any worse than an educational establishment that continues to operate an unwritten hierarchy in which large swathes of vocational education are given lower status than the so-called pure subjects?

Conrad Lashley is head of the Centre for Hospitality Management at Nottingham Trent University and vice chair of the Council for Hospitality Management Education.

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