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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
In praise of wacky degrees
Professor Floud defends "non-traditional" degrees
University degrees in subjects such as surfing and retail management provide students with the skills employers want, a senior academic claims.

Professor Roderick Floud, president of the university umbrella group - Universities UK - rejects critics' allegations that such vocational degrees are "vacuous".

Chris Woodhead
Mr Woodhead has repeatedly criticised "vacuous" degrees
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, Professor Floud said a surf science and technology course offered by Plymouth University had been so successful it had attracted interest in Hawaii and Western Australia.

But his words were challenged by the former chief inspector of schools in England, Chris Woodhead.

A high-profile critic of "silly degrees", Mr Woodhead poured scorn on the government's aim to get half of all young people into higher education by 2010 - a more realistic goal would be 20%, he said.

By the age of 14, there were "significant numbers" of children who had "made as much progress as they can in a conventional academic education", he added.

More than a job

Studying for a degree was not just about getting a job at the end of it, Mr Woodhead said.

"The purpose of a degree is not solely or even mainly to make people employable, it is to introduce people to a genuine academic discipline.

A degree in surf science and technology - is this a silly degree? Of course not, it was launched because of demand by local employers in Plymouth for the graduates it delivers

Professor Roderick Floud
"To the best of my knowledge, surf science is not a genuine academic discipline."

But Professor Floud attacked those who sought to invalidate certain courses.

"You'll often hear doom mongers deriding supposedly silly degree courses, that they don't equip students with the skills they need or that employers want.

"But whichever course a student does, anecdotes and statistics alike show that it's worth it to that student," the professor said.

100% employment

He cited the University of Bournemouth's retail management degree, which has had a 100% employment rate for its graduates for the past seven years.

"A degree in surf science and technology - is this a silly degree? Of course not, it was launched because of demand by local employers in Plymouth for the graduates it delivers," he said.

Dr Colin Williams, who set up the surf science degree, said the university had drawn up a unique agreement with Edith Cowan University in Western Australia under which it would buy the "intellectual property" of the course.

Dr Williams said the course was scientifically rigorous and candidates needed at least a grade C at A-Level in physics, chemistry or maths.

The course attracted up to 50 applicants for every place, he added.

"I find it amusing that people seek to put this degree down. If they could see the answers to exam questions that I've seen they would be impressed, as I am," he said.

Nigel Hemmington, the head of the School of Service Industries at Bournemouth University, also spoke out in support of the university's retail management degree.

He said: "Chris Woodhead's comments are both fallacious and dangerous.

"His elitist view that only 20% of the population should be given the opportunity to study at university is redolent of times when it was argued that the proletariat should not be taught to write for fear of the grafitti that might then arise!

"People like Chris Woodhead should recognise and celebrate the achievements of our universities in being flexible to the learning needs of the wider population, and for providing the opportunity for more (not less) people to benefit from higher education."

See also:

02 Oct 01 | Education
Degree in what did you say?
28 Sep 01 | Mike Baker
University: Is it a good deal?
20 Jul 01 | Wales
Degree pushes final frontier
25 Aug 00 | Scotland
Degree pipes in new era
14 Mar 99 | Education
Surf's up - to a degree
06 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia launches surfing science degree
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