Reunited: vacation vocation

November 26, 2004

Tourism chief executive Richard Dickinson visits Bournemouth University where he studied as a mature student in the 1980s

There are buildings everywhere. Returning, it is hard to get a handle on the scale - even the name has changed three times, from "Institute", via "Polytechnic" to Bournemouth University.

Some 3,500 students were there in the mid-1980s. There are 14,000 now so they must be doing something right.

"A degree in tourism must be a real holiday" was a typical quip after I enrolled on the first year of "tourism studies" 18 years ago. Like the university, the industry had real growth potential but was not seen as a serious choice. After a successful, if financially precarious, "first career" as a motorcycle racer I found myself at 25 wondering how to fill the rest of my life.

Further education was a necessity, but traditional degrees just didn't inspire me, a so-called "mature" student without a clutch of decent A levels. It became plain that conventional universities had reservations, too. So it was refreshing to be invited to Bournemouth to be quizzed about my life and my ambitions rather than about a string of largely forgotten qualifications.

They took a chance, which was just what I needed. This sort of approach says a lot about Bournemouth, where 78 per cent of graduates find jobs quickly, much higher than the average.

The philosophy remains to inspire a diverse and bright bunch of independently minded students through vocational degrees that are relevant to working life. Vocational didn't mean a lack of academic rigour.

With my background I found it liberating to study a subject some perhaps viewed as an academic cul-de-sac. Back then, there were probably ten standard tourism texts, now ten new titles appear every month.

To capitalise on the trend, a leading research institute has been established at the university to support the teaching school and the industry.

Vocational degrees have had their critics but this may say more about an inability to embrace change than problems with the qualifications. Eighteen years ago tourism was perceived as an unprofessional sector with few prospects. But it is turning out to be one of the world's largest industries.

There is a vast range of management jobs - in areas such as hotels or destination marketing. If you are talented, you are likely to progress rapidly. So how did I progress? A year of work was part of the course and it provided me with the springboard to figure out that I was suited to the public sector. After a spell at the English Tourist Board in the early 1990s, I moved to a policy job at the European Commission and then to a trade association.

Then I worked as director of strategy and insight at VisitBritain, the national tourist board. My role was analysing what was happening where in the market, why and what we should do about it.

I am now chief executive of East Midlands Tourism.

If there is a difference in the tourism industry now, it is the level of competition. At VisitBritain, for example, we would get about 100 applications for a one-year student placement. Sixteen years ago only a small crop of students would trundle to London to interview for the equivalent role.

With 12 per cent going to university then and 40 per cent now I suppose a broader question relates to quality: when will the numbers game stop adding up?

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