Wednesday, July 28, 2004

What do they mean by 'Mickey Mouse' degrees?

Here we go again. The Guardian reports on the fulminations of the chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers at its annual conference yesterday. As it's reported, Barry Matthews, managed to throw together concerns about a) the government's policy of widening participation to universities, b) vocational degrees and c) so-called 'Mickey Mouse' research in cultural studies. But there are two quite different issues here, which is why I'm doing this in two posts.

I have a good deal of sympathy when it comes to the concerns expressed about widening participation, and some ambivalence. I believe that access to the opportunities of higher education should depend only on ability (and willingness) to learn, not on ability to pay, or where you and your parents come from. But I'm inclined to agree with this view:

He told delegates from a wide range of educational fields that teenagers were being brainwashed into thinking that university was their only option as the government fretted about meeting its aim of getting 50% of young people a university education by 2010.

I'm not convinced that setting numerical targets, and simply expanding the numbers of young people in universities, can in itself resolve disparities of access. In practice, it seems to mean increasing numbers of mediocre middle-class students, rather than significant and stimulating changes in the social composition of the student population. And I fear that if you expand numbers without addressing inequalities in access, then 'grade inflation' will lead to the narrowing of job opportunities for those without degrees, which will simply increase social inequality. (My personal view is that we need, if anything, fewer 18-year-old full-time students and more mature and part-time students and 'lifelong learners'.)

Now, what about his complaints about vocational degrees? "Do you need a degree to prove you have a vocational qualification?... Do we need bricklayers with degrees or with practical ability?" Well, of course the main priority when you employ a bricklayer is the practical ability (although I refer you to the last sentence of the previous paragraph at this point; I'd quite like to see lots of brickies doing degrees for their own education and pleasure...) Conversely, universities should not compromise on their core 'academic' foundations; a degree without academic, intellectual content is not a degree.

But the rhetoric here is silly. There are no bricklaying degrees, nor any likelihood that building contractors will be expecting them on bricklayers' CVs. Vocational degrees are aimed at something quite different. If you take a look at the most comprehensive source in the UK, the UCAS database of courses for 2005 entry, there are courses to do with 'building' and 'construction'; but most of them are in fact one- or two-year vocational diplomas such as HNDs (and from small HE Institutes rather than universities). Where they are full degrees they're either focused on science (ie, engineering) or management. Similar points can be made about other examples mentioned in the article. 'Surfing' and 'golf' degrees turn out to be related to/part of sports studies, again focused either on science or management. There were, by the way, no courses, degree or diploma, in pilates. (I'll come back to pop music in the second part of the post.)

Looking closer at the 'management' degree courses does raise a few questions. It's not that they seem, on closer inspection, insubstantial or lacking in 'academic' content. It's more that you wonder about over-specialisation. How useful, in a job market that's all about flexibility and adaptability, is a degree in 'beach and surf management' or 'sports studies (golf)'? Of course, modularisation means that 'sports studies (golf)' is probably very little different from plain old 'sports studies', anyway. (So what's the point, in that case?)

Do managers need degrees? No, let me put that a different way, taking me back to my earlier point. Do all managers need degrees? And do all these degrees in business management mean that employers end up insisting that candidates for management jobs must have them? What then happens to the alternative, traditional ways of recruiting from the ranks?

I think these are serious issues. But talking about non-existent 'bricklaying' degrees does not help in addressing them.

And if you think I sound annoyed now, wait till you see part II.

Update: In the Guardian today, two economists making the same point about what happens to the degree-less 'bottom half' (as well as raising serious questions about the effects on the economy).

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