I listened to this programme
on the radio this morning. In it, Quentin Letts explored the question of what a university education is for, and whether it is any use or not in today's world. He spoke to various academic staff and students from old and new universities, and compared study of 'pure' and vocational degrees.
As someone who gained a vocational degree (a 2:1, no less) from a new university, I suppose I have a bias. But my degree has proved to be valuable, just not in the vocational area that I qualified in! I qualified as an allied health professional after 4 years of hard study and work placements. The academic side of my course covered: Psychology, Linguistics, Biology (particularly Neurology), Child Development, Counselling and Communication Skills. In the placements it was necessary to apply our learning of those subjects to everyday life and to reflect on our own behaviour and the way it impacted on our patients and colleagues.
I often regret not studying a 'pure' subject at University. I love learning and thinking and writing essays, and I wish I had had the luxury of doing that for three years. But I cannot regret the skills, knowledge and confidence my degree course gave me, and I do not believe that I would ever have got them from the devoted pursuit of a single subject - academic or (a different kind of) vocational. Now I do not even practice the profession I trained in, but the training I received has set me up with the 'soft skills'
which are so in demand the modern job market.
The debate over what education is for and how well it prepares young (and older) people for the job market often seems to want seperate people into those who have academic skills and those who have practical skills. This seperation easily allows people to judge those who should spend the money and gain a degree based on pure knowledge, and those who should spend their money on gaining skills which will make them employable.
However, it now seems that employers want more than a degree
and the issues seem to be the same for those who have not been to University
. So perhaps spending time debating whether GCSE Maths and a Physics degree is better or worse than a BTEC in Hospitalilty and a degree in Tourism Management is a distraction from the more pressing issue of how the education system prepares all young people for the employment opportunities that are available to them once their time in the education system is over.
I would never argue that study and learning new skills are not valuable in themselves, and I firmly believe that these options should remain open for all young people. I also believe though, that there has to be a new element of training in 'soft skills' to help young people (and older jobseekers) prepare for work.
As much as education can enrich the mind, for independence and self esteem people need to work. If the education system stays preoccupied with its own internal squabbles about academic versus vocational learning it runs the risk of letting down learners from both groups who remain unemployable in spite of its best efforts.