Chair's Blog: Academic vs Vocational - Why should students be forced to make this choice?

13 Jan 2014

With the skills agenda at the heart of many recent education debates, there has been an increasing tendency to present prospective students with only two options – academic or vocational. Study at university if you’re academic, or if you want vocational skills, do an apprenticeship instead. But why are students being made to choose between the two as if it has to be one or the other?

For too long, governments have presented the idea that as a young person or mature student you have to select either an academic or a vocational education. The notion that these are opposing paths is both simplistic and misleading, as it fails to recognise both the benefits of combining the two and the diversity of the UK’s higher education sector.

At present, the political parties whether intentionally or accidentally, paint vocational routes as an alternative to higher education, especially for those young people who have been unfairly written off as ‘not academic enough’ for university. However it is higher level vocational skills that the economy needs and that our global competitors are investing in – which appear to be somewhat overlooked.

It is also a common misconception that vocationally-focused degree programmes are not studied at an equal academic standard. In truth, vocational degrees are regulated in exactly the same way as any ‘academic’ university course. Meanwhile, the perception of academic courses as being remote from the practical world of work is also wrong. Many of the skills developed in academic study, and the growing diversity in how academic courses are taught, provide graduates with invaluable skills demanded by a wide range of industries.

In such a competitive jobs market, more and more universities are beginning to see the benefits of building in vocational elements to their degree programmes, such as compulsory work placements. This is responding to a growing consumer demand: the student will be more employable when they graduate – and as well as this, universities are able to build stronger links with local businesses.

The more classic ‘academic’ subjects like English or Mathematics will offer a completely different module programme to vocational courses such as Midwifery or Radiography, but still require the same graduate attributes such as problem-solving, developing a range of employability skills.

Instead of positioning the two against one another though, they should be recognised by employers and politicians for their equal value to the individual and the economy. While much of the discussion casts academic and vocational learning in opposition, some politicians do better reflect the reality. Dr Vince Cable was recently quoted when speaking at a conference for the Association of Colleges:

“Higher education is not just about academic university degrees. It is about making vocational education the peer of academic education, about having the two combine effectively to offer good opportunities for every prospective student.”

Students are savvy consumers and should be encouraged to make their own informed, individual choices about what to study and where. Therefore all those ambitious and hard-working students who have attended university should receive equal high regard from graduate employers even if they have chosen to study vocational skills in an academic environment.

The value of studying a vocational course at university should not be disregarded, as ultimately, the more highly skilled people we have in the UK, the bigger impact it will have on the jobs market and wider economy.

Britain has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world along with countries like the USA and Canada. Data from the OECD’s Adults Skills Survey last year, suggests we have an economy that reflects our current skill levels (that most people are neither under, nor overqualified for their jobs). Fundamentally, that means if we maintain our flexible approach and had better skills, we would attract and create higher skilled jobs too.

In a country with a leading higher education sector and a globalised economy, good jobs will follow good skills – and that should be the focus of this debate.

Professor Michael Gunn is Chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University

Twitter: @StaffsUniVC