Gina Davidson: Degrees are not the only course

A university education is not for everyone. Picture: Getty
A university education is not for everyone. Picture: Getty
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IT’S been interesting watching the transformation of journalism in the last 20-odd years.

The job has gone from being a “trade” to a “profession”, from being a vocation where all you needed was a nose for a story, a shorthand note and the ability to write in plain English, to being a career in which a university degree is essential, while skills such as being able to talk to strangers in their grief or ask tough and apparently stupid questions of those in charge, ­apparently less so.

Journalism is not the only “job” to have suffered this drive to degree standard. Many others have become the victims of the previous Blair government’s drive to get young people into university. Nursing is another which stands out, as nursing has become a degree-level subject the standard of care given in hospitals – that’s care, not treatment – seems to have fallen. Is there a connection?

Not that I’m suggesting a university education isn’t valuable, but it’s interesting to note that while professors and lecturers in that sector bemoan the commercialisation of what they offer – that it’s becoming more geared towards employability rather than just enlightenment – the college sector, which has always been about vocational training, is having its funding cut and as a result is seeing student and lecturer numbers drop.

An Audit Scotland report this week showed that between 2011 and 2012 colleges’ income fell by nine per cent – including a £56 million cut from the Scottish Funding Council, the sector’s main funding source. Unsurprisingly full-time equivalent staff numbers – most teaching staff – were cut from 12,800 to 11,600.

An apparent government emphasis on full-time courses has also led to a drop in student numbers and is closing off college education for people over the age of 24.

So university student numbers are rising, but college student numbers are falling. And all the while employers moan that young people are ­unemployable.

The problem is the dogmatic belief that universities are the be-all-and-end-all of tertiery education. The continued focus on expanding university education at the expense of other forms of learning is wrong and results in young people graduating after four years of study, with a scroll but facing the dole. Their thinking faculties may be second-to-none, but they’re not actually equipped to work.

Vocational study has been derided for too long as second rate compared to a university degree. There needs to be rethink and for a new prestige to be attached to college courses which offer people a direct route into work.

Perhaps, as has been suggested by the Institute for Public Policy Research, it’s even time for the Polytechnic to be brought back. I always thought the rush to university status by Napier was rather unseemly, even if the financial incentive was obvious.

Not everyone is cut out to be a university student. Not everyone does well at school. Colleges are vital for those who need to sit their Highers again, or who need to get hands-on with their job as soon as possible due to their financial situation, or who want to have more options in life – perhaps to even go on to a degree.

Politicians really have to stop believing that a university education is the only one with any value.