Why I think vocational degrees should stop trying to be academic

September 9, 2005

Amid debates over top-up fees and equal access to universities, the issue of quality in further education takes not just a back seat but is shut away firmly in the boot.

I have spent the past two years studying for a vocational degree in journalism and have grown increasingly frustrated at the way in which students on these courses are forced into an academic straitjacket.

To attain degree status, vocational qualifications must contain a percentage of "academic" study, so hours of lecture time are taken up with abstruse theory and lectures on history. This often diminishes the vocational part of a degree. The practicalities of real-life experience are often an afterthought. Students are overwhelmed by information that will be of little use to them after graduation and vital vocational work is dealt with scantily.

Vocational degrees such as leisure management, fashion design and football studies are damaged when vocational and academic work are amalgamated. As part of my degree I studied the history of the press, and although such subjects are interesting, they consume far too much time on the course.

Lecturers drafted in from industry were forced to talk on theories of media globalisation or post-communist media, leaving them little time to share industry knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. They were obliged to discuss topics of little relevance or interest to themselves or students, often sharing their more useful insiders' knowledge in the union bar afterwards rather than during the lecture. Many of them agreed with students that a week's work experience gleaning industry knowledge was more useful than a semester spent studying the theory of a news story.

All of this serves only to reduce the impact of the UK's highly respected degree system. A new approach is vital, both to gain the respect these vocational degrees lack and to rescue the reputation of Britain's maths, science and history degrees. It is easily forgotten that the point of the university application process is to pick out the intellectual elite, who have the ability and motivation to study a purely academic subject.

The answer is to improve the quality of education by abandoning the concept of degrees for vocational subjects. A new qualification should not be a half measure, embodied in Labour's foundation degree courses, which are seen as a stepping stone to a "real" degree. Although some companies view them as a valuable resource, their format and standards are relatively unknown outside the sponsoring industries and are consequently regarded with little respect. With the glut of qualifications flooding the market, it is clear that adding another one to the list will not improve matters.

The answer is a consolidation of the existing vocational qualifications into one easily understood vocational education path.

We need an industry-supported, purely vocational system that allows students to concentrate on the skills they need in their careers, rather than diluting the quality of education. Extraneous knowledge takes up too much time and effort.

Many young people leave school at 16 because they know university is not for them, and they are simply unaware of the options available. Creating a simpler vocational study route would encourage those who would perhaps consider themselves "not smart enough" to go to university to remain in full-time education. This would increase the uptake of further education without diminishing the reputation of the British degree, and provide another world-renowned qualification.

Joanna Dymock Final-year journalism student, Southampton Solent University (until recently Southampton Institute)

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