More plumbing, less Pilates

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Walt Disney must be spinning in his grave. After all, what harm has Mickey Mouse

ever done to anyone? No, I can’t think of anything either, and the last time I looked

Disney was making over $33 billion a year – they must be getting something right! So

how has it come about that poor Mickey’s name has become inextricably associated

with the worthless and the risible, often, though not always, in the realm of education?

Back in the summer the Sunday Express’s Royal correspondent (why?) set finger to

keyboard and gave us this:

 

AS BRITAIN’S teenagers either celebrate or commiserate over their A-level results

this weekend, a stark warning from the British Chamber of Commerce: do not go

to university unless you plan to study something useful. Policy director Dr Adam

Marshall said: ‘There may be a course in underwater basket weaving but that does

not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.’ Universities

should be banned from running Mickey Mouse courses that are best left to further

education colleges.

 

Where to begin? Poor Dr Marshall was on the receiving end of quite a lot of public and

private stick for this, but he was set up. A suggestion to the editor (from me, I admit)

that he may have a Mickey Mouse columnist on his hands resulted in a lively and

entertaining exchange of e-mails. It was that ‘Mickey Mouse courses … are best left to

further education colleges’ jibe that seemed so gratuitous.

 

Of course, poor Mickey’s crumbling reputation is all Margaret Hodge’s fault. When

Higher Education Minister in 2003 it was she who opined that a Mickey Mouse course:

‘is one where the content is perhaps not as rigorous as one would expect and where

the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market‘.

Ms Hodge (BSc Economics, Third Class) was talking about universities, of course, but

it didn’t take long for the press to start differentiating between ‘proper’ universities and

those that were little better than ‘jumped up technical colleges’; a bit like ‘bog standard

comprehensives’ (attrib. Alastair Campbell, BA Modern Languages).

 

A Google search on ‘Mickey Mouse courses’ throws up large number of links to the

Daily Mail for some reason, usually reporting on the pronouncements of successive

ministers with responsibility for education (or skills as we have come to call it) about

their rabble-rousing promises to slash or to axe. Quite why this approach to education

merits metaphors reminiscent of the Viking raids remains a mystery.

Oops, here comes Alan Johnson (11+) in the Guardian, shortly after the publication of

the Foster∗ report (or was it Leitch?):

 

We must rebalance taxpayers’ money towards the subjects where there is greatest

need – so more plumbing, less Pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not oversubsidised

flower arranging, except of course where flower arranging is necessary

for a vocational purpose.

 

A nice little coda at the end there, with that slightly grudging ‘of course’. Actually,

Johnson went on more helpfully, suggesting that the word vocational was possibly an

obstacle to the recognition they merited.

 

He suggested teachers and politicians should stop talking about ‘vocational’

courses and use the word ‘professional’ instead, as part of a drive to recruit young

people with skills needed by industry and ‘end our endemic prejudice against

vocational qualifications as inferior to academic achievement’.

 

The former postman said: ‘I would be quite happy to lose the word “vocational”

completely from our school dictionaries if it was proved to deter people from taking

these vital courses.’

 

He has a point, though the Guardian reporter (now, by the way, Head of

Communications for the Russell Group) just had to use that ‘former postman’ prefix,

didn’t he? He might talk some sense, but let us remind ourselves of his ‘umble origins.

 

It is reported that Ruth Kelly (MSc Economics), when visiting an FE college as part of

her ministerial responsibilities during her brief time inside the ministerial revolving door,

asked one of her aides, ‘Why would anyone send their child to one of these places?’

Aside from the ignorance of the demographics of the FE population it’s an interesting

use of the word ‘send’ with that slight implication of punishment.

 

Indeed, scratch the surface of this discussion (one can’t call it a debate) and the classbased

sneering is almost always there, even among Mickey’s friends. Here is Boris

Johnson (BA Literae Humaniores) coming out in defence of poor Mickey:

 

Kids these days! says our man with the pint of Stella, slapping the Daily Telegraph

on the bar. Look at the rubbish they study! ‘Ere, he says, finding an account of the

recent investigation by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which has compiled a list of the

401 ‘non-courses’ being offered by our universities…

 

Absurd! cries saloon bar man, and then jabs his finger at yet greater absurdities: a

course at the University of Glamorgan in ‘Science: Fiction and Culture’; and get

this – the Welsh College of Horticulture is offering anyone with four Cs at GCSE

the chance to study for an Honours degree in ‘Equestrian Psychology’! It’s a

degree in horse whispering! he says. It’s bonkers.

 

Why, he asks rhetorically, are we paying for students to waste their time on these

Mickey Mouse courses, when it is perfectly obvious what they should be doing.

Trades! Skills! Craft! This country doesn’t need more bleeding degrees in media

studies and whispering into horses’ ears! What we need is {sic} people who can fix

my septic tank! We need more plumbers, he raves, and it’s not just because he

resents paying so much for his Polish plumber; it’s because the whole university

business is – in his view – such a cruel deception on so many young people. They

rack up an average of £13,000 of debt for some noddy [what harm has he done to

anyone?] qualification, when they would have been far better off getting stuck into

a job after leaving school and engaging in an old-fashioned apprenticeship.

 

Well, the universities, new or otherwise, can look after themselves. The Bucks New

University degree course in bed retailing is robustly defended by the Vice Chancellor

(no, I am not making this up: ‘Selling beds is now degree course’).

 

Technical Colleges (still known as techs to their many successful ex-students who

attended night school and still use that term to this day, unlike anyone in further

education) have their tap root in the Great Exhibition of 1851, although it wasn’t until

1890 when a tax on beer and spirits was introduced specifically for the funding of

technical education (don’t tell the Skills Funding Agency) that things really took off. I

still have the tripartite agreement signed by my old dad, his employer and Leicester

Technical College in 1933 for his apprenticeship, a training category only recently

rediscovered with wonder and delight by the Government and Asda.

 

So the politicians feed soundbites to the media and this vacuous discussion continues

to outrage and infuriate the person on the Clapham omnibus and the staff in

universities and FE colleges alike. Local media responds differently to FE and is happy

to publish success stories about its local citizens (look here:

‘It’s sexy A levels!’) but so many politicians and so much of the national

media (except, until recently, The Guardian) have no clue about FE. The BBC seem

not to have heard of it.

 

There are some paradoxes here. We all interact daily with all manner of trades people

who are the products of FE. The hairdressers, the sandwich shop staff, the plumbers,

the car repair people, restaurant and hotel staff, dental nurses, horse-riding instructors,

care staff, receptionists, PAs, nursery nurses – the list is endless, all of them prepared

to tell you about night school and their City and Guilds or BTEC, displaying their food

hygiene and beautician certificates and badging their vans with the Gas Safe logo.

 

So how does FE achieve such apparent invisibility on the national radar (despite the

best efforts of the 157 Group or the Association of Colleges) when we are surrounded

by its products?

 

It’s partly that their achievements are badged and validated by the exam boards, for

which FE simply acts as franchisees. That framed certificate is branded by Edexcel or

the RSA, not by FE. But arrive in any new town and ask the cabby for the local college

and they will pause, say, ‘You mean the Tech?’ and then take you there while telling

you all about the courses they and their kids have attended there.

 

Strip the tech out of a town (imagine it) and how would you ever get anything fixed, cut,

polished or cooked? We’d all go shaggy and starve and have to walk everywhere. It

would be like the Middle Ages. Here’s an idea. Next time you get your hair cut, or buy

a sandwich or get your car repaired, ask the person serving you where they trained. I

guarantee the tech word will crop up.

 

And yet, despite the frustrating task of marketing FE to its target customers and the

apparent invisibility of its impact, one can scarcely call to mind the endless reports,

reviews and reforms of the last 20 years, each one talking about ‘world-class skills for

a world-class economy’, each calling for employer engagement like it was a new idea,

more qualifications relevant to the needs of employers and better quality training.

 

Meanwhile many employers remain baffled (talk to them) about FE’s scope and

capabilities and, to be fair, many FE staff may have little idea of what goes on in the

next department or site. FE’s diversity is astonishing and a walk around any college

will reveal all manner of surprises, even for those who have worked there for so long

that they could be carbon dated.

 

Wasn‘t it Kenneth Baker who invited the ‘Cinderella sector’ to come onto the dance

floor? He is now busy with his university technical colleges, which have the

revolutionary idea of training 14–19 year olds in practical vocational skills. My old dad

knew about those in the 1930s. His was called Leicester Tech.

 

To be fair, behind the headlines and in the committee rooms of Westminster some

politicians are acutely aware of the role of FE. Reading through the minutes of the

Education Select Committee’s deliberations after the publication of the Wolf Report (I

wonder when the next report is due?) is quite heartening. It’s a big read.  Why is one so surprised

to find intelligent informed debate on the subject? And what happens to the outcome of

the deliberations? They won’t be appearing in the Daily Mail, that’s for sure.

 

Let’s allow Boris to have the last word:

It is ridiculous for these saloon-bar critics to denounce ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees,

and say that the students would be better off doing vocational courses – when the

whole point is that these degrees are very largely vocational.

 

We can laugh at degrees in Aromatherapy and Equine Science, but they are just

as vocational as degrees in Law or Medicine, except that they are tailored to the

enormous expansion of the service economy.

 

It’s just a pity that he didn’t pause to consider who is making his doughnuts, fixing his

bike (or even styling his hair.)

 

∗ Foster started his career as a social worker. Not many people know that.

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Posted in Academic–vocational divide, Alison Wolf, FE colleges, Vocational Education