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Monday, 14 August, 2000, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
'Vacuous degree' - just the job

Higher education boasts more students than ever before. But many vocational courses are "vacuous" and do nothing for "employment prospects" says chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead. Is this true?

Dreaming spires and tutorials in musty, oak-panelled rooms it ain't, but the life of a student beauty therapist is not a bad one.

Except in the opinion of chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead. The outspoken head of Ofsted has renewed his attack on academia's trend for vocational courses.

Wine bottle
Nothing to whine about: "Wine graduates" have the pick of the jobs crop
Mr Woodhead dismissed courses such as beauty therapy, knitwear and pig enterprise management as "quasi-academic" and "vacuous".

Worse, he described the courses as a dead-end. "What is the point of students completing a course only to find that their degree adds little or nothing to their employment prospects?"

His dismissal is all the more stinging when you consider vocational qualifications are designed primarily to appeal to employers.

But while Mr Woodhead's comments reflect widely-held fears of dumbing down in higher education, do these courses really represent a season ticket to the dole office?

Evidence shows many of the more "quirky" degrees are in fact well tuned to the current jobs market.

Beauty Therapy - Several colleges offer courses, at degree and HND level. They include Beauty Therapy Management at Newcastle College and International Beauty, Health and Spa Management at the University of Derby. Beauty Therapy - David Blunkett once said he didn't want a nation of hairdressers, but this is a thriving industry. A survey by the Guild of Professional Beauty therapists identified 9,613 beauty parlours (excluding hair salons) in 1999. A spokeswoman for the guild said good training is crucial for advanced treatments, such as laser hair removal.
Knitwear - Knitwear and textiles can be studied to degree and HND levels. Courses include Menswear Design: Knitwear, at Northbrook College, Sussex. Knitwear - More than 80% of graduates in textiles and polymers found a job within six months of leaving college, according to latest figures from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, for 1997/8. Of the 570 graduates, only 40 were still looking for work half a year after finishing. In May, the Scotsman newspaper reported a skills shortage in the sector.
Media Studies - A frequent target for those who think higher education has gone soft, media studies courses proliferated in the 1990s. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, lists more than 1,000 courses in the UK. Media Studies - While professionals who worked their way up from the tea room are often hostile to the idea, media studies graduates are anything but work-shy. Paul Redmond, editor of the annual publication What Do Graduates Do? says they have the seventh highest employment rate.
Wine Studies - Like beer making, the course would appear to blur the distinction between work and play. Brighton is the only university to offer a course in this subject. Wine Studies - Job prospects would appear to be good for the handful of students who enrol on this year's HND. Wine sales are soaring and consumption is catching up with beer. One of Britain's biggest retailers, Majestic Wine, recruits 100 trainee branch managers - almost all graduates - every year.
Circus Skills - Last year saw the launch of Britain's first degree course in Circus Skills - actually a module of the Theatre Practice course London's Central School of Speech and Drama. Circus Skills - "People on the course develop to become creative entertainers and have a range of transferable skills," says Charlie Holland, of Circus Space, which helps run the BA (Hons). The course scored top marks in a recent assessment by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Pig Enterprise Management - Bit of a mystery this. Although Mr Woodhead mentioned the course by name, UCAS does not list it. The nearest thing is a three-year diploma at Myerscough College, Preston, in Pig Husbandry. Pig Enterprise Management - As the latest outbreak of swine fever has highlighted, pig farming is a major UK industry. The Meat and Livestock Commission says the export market in pork alone is work 145m annually. Britain boasts about 12,000 pig farmers.

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