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In 2001, Chris Woodhead, England’s chief inspector of schools caused a storm when he accused British universities of devaluing higher education by offering vacuous degrees.

At the time, London’s The Sunday Times carried a candid interview with Woodhead. Among other things he questioned whether many vocational courses deliver on their claims.

Woodhead says many courses don’t prepare students for the real world. He argues some vocational degrees do little to help a student’s employment prospects and do even less for their employers.

Britain’s Institute of Directors backed these comments, so did a number of employers.

Daft courses are here too

The criticisms could equally apply to courses now on offer in Australia and New Zealand – not to mention some of the less prestigious American universities, which have a long tradition of offering worthless qualifications and dubious courses.

Woodhead grabbed the headlines by decrying certain quasi-academic degrees on offer in the UK including; Golf course management, pig enterprise management, knitwear and beauty therapy courses.

And then there are Madonna Studies – if you’re wondering we are talking about the singer here, not theological investigation about the mother of Christ. Thankfully this is no longer on offer.

While daft-sounding degrees are easy targets Woodhead has a point. How many employers need workers who can deconstruct the lyrics of Material Girl‘?

You can read more about Woodhead’s comments and responses at the BBC news website. You can also read Woodhead’s comments on media studies – which he describes as a one-way ticket to the dole queue.

Is there value in media studies?

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there is any real value in media studies or the more offbeat subjects mentioned.

It’s interesting and disappointing, but predictable that most of the angry defensive response from academics to Woodhead’s comments focused on his trashing of seemingly silly courses and not his more important points about vocational education in general.

Clearly British academics are as insecure as antipodeans when it comes to handling constructive criticism.

Woodhead’s important point was the balance between vocational training and coherent academic learning is completely out of kilter.

The issue is not whether our society needs people trained at public expense in the subtle art of looking after golf courses, tending pigs or even reading newspapers, but whether such a course is on an academic par with an honours degree in Astrophysics.

Bigger picture

Woodhead rightly points out the danger in less obviously worthy courses of devaluing all higher education. It’s a real danger. I’ve known employers in knowledge industries who are suspicious of all graduates – they think universities fill people’s heads with stupid ideas. Many of those who get beyond that level of thinking have doubts about anything other than a straightforward vocational degree.

I thought this attitude prejudiced and hard to understand until I interviewed a seriously strange person with a media studies degree for a newspaper job.

Common sense says one or two crazy examples are not enough evidence to deduce a trend and I like to keep an open mind but I have to say few of the media studies graduates I’ve interviewed are cut out to work in the media. It’s hard to image who might employ them. On the other hand people used to say the same thing about sociology, which has since become quite respectable.

It doesn’t make sense for education to stand still in a world where everything careers about at a frantic pace. However, there does need to be a benchmark for higher education.

Lively debate about vocation versus academic learning

There’s always been a lively debate over the value of degree level vocational training and more academic learning. Both have their place in higher education and ideally, most people entering the knowledge workforce will have the opportunity to experience both kinds of learning at some point. Modern economies need people trained in advanced skills as well as people trained how to think.

Yet there is a lot of real doubt about the worth of some courses. This isn’t new. Back in the late 1970s an acquaintance was accepted to study computer science at an American university. He sent me a copy of his first semester timetable. Of 30 timetabled hours, only four hours could be loosely described as studying computers.

There’s a lot to be said for a liberal education, but this bloke spent six hours a week on the university golf course as part of his computer science degree. In year one he was expected to reduce his handicap to six to pass – a handicap of four represented a high distinction.

Playing golf would ultimately account for 15 percent of his degree. Those of us studying in, then still rigorously academic, British universities were shocked.

On the other hand, from a vocational training point of view it’s not such a dumb idea. A career in the computer industry, particularly in commercial sales, might well be helped along by an ability to knock a small white ball into 18 holes.

The only way to steer through the higher education maze is to spend time researching the options. It’s  worth checking the academic reputation of courses, subjects within courses and institutions before signing up.

Less obvious and more difficult is checking with potential employers about the relative merits of these things. You’ll need to be canny about this – people often just pass on their own prejudices and not provide valuable insight. But education is too valuable to waste. You don’t want to spend three years getting a Mickey Mouse degree – even if you plan to work for Disney.

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