By Vicky Wong
The recent government announcement to encourage more vocational degrees may at first seem like an intrinsically good thing to pledge, but in light of the budget cuts proposed, it is unlikely that such would be the case.
Most certainly at the University of Reading in which I am approaching my final year of my undergraduate degree (Politics and International Relations); Reading prides itself as one of the top 10 research intensive universities in the country, and is reputed for its sciences, and offering a range of unconventional degrees, such as Typography and Meteorology, and offer a unique choice of modules such as Botany in Biology.
Despite boasting a reputation in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, which the government have been demanding more students to study), the 2008 Reasearch Assessment Exercise (RAE) reported that the University of Reading performed poorly in a lot of the STEM (or practical) areas, namely Chemistry, Physics, Engineering. However, it exceeded expectations in more Humanities based degrees such as Philosophy.
Hefce, the funding body which allocates money to HE institutions cut the University of Reading’s budget by 7.7%, and was cited by the BBC as one of the bottom six “losers” of the funding cuts. Subsequently the University had to rethink its spending strategies and have decided to invest more of their resources into departments that performed well in the 2008 RAE, and withdraw funding from those that performed poorly, even going as far as shutting down departments. The university’s Physics department was shut down in 2008, Biology has had some modules withdrawn due to insufficient students studying them (much to the dismay of students who chose Reading in the first place to study a specific module), and Engineering is partially closed, and Health and Social Care was closed meaning many applicants who received offers were rejected. The university have estimated how much cuts they have made for the coming academic year, but that is subject to change after the George Osborne’s Budget cuts announcement on June 25th.
The Education correspondents on the BBC have been on a field day with report after report on the influx of undergraduates; the number of students applying for a degree have increased, thousands expected to be rejected, graduate unemployment is on the rise etc. Observers have cited various problems; too many students are being asked to specialise too early at GCSEs, leading them to opt for more “softer” humanities subjects and subsequently “softer” degrees, the government putting too much emphasis on university degrees over alternative routes of employment or education. The list goes on, and I think if I edit all the BBC higher education reports together in the past month, I would have probably seen the University of Birmingham’s graduation ceremony in full.
To cut to the chase, given that I come from a university that has suffered extensive cuts, the government’s proposal to introduce more vocational university degrees is completely offset by the fact that the key vocational degrees that were offered at Reading are being cut along with national scrimp and save, and this could be a similar picture for other universities who have had their budgets reduced, and for where STEM subjects may not necessarily be a strong point. If the government are demanding more engineers, surely they should have recognised that we cannot get enough engineers unless money is invested into STEM subjects, namely degrees that will equip future engineers; a tragic irony given this age of one cut after another.
But as a student of the social sciences variety, what angers me is that humanities subjects are very often painted as being either “easy”, or “too academic” and hence unlikely to be accompanied by practical skills that would be deemed “useful” for the workplace. I don’t know about you, but I feel dejected that some can dare say to humanities undergraduates, most of whom have a passion for their studies, that their degree does not teach you much by way of practical skills to gain employment. Academic degrees have their merit in that students are required to sift through large volumes of text, and condense that into manageable chunks; is this not a valuable skill for the workplace? What of research and presentation skills? Surely academic degrees have their merits in that field of “practical” abilities?
Having said that, it may be the case that other universities are better equipped to provide STEM-base degrees, but even so, the best ones that provide these resources are the ones at the apex of the league table. This could mean that
Observers have noted obtaining work experience is also vital for employment. But even today’s volatile economic climate, work experience is just as hard to find as jobs; if there are thousands upon thousands more undergraduates, then demand for work experience is going to go up, which makes finding work experience for just one week just as difficult as finding a full time job. Firms such as Ernst & Young, and PriceWaterCooperHouse all have difficult pre-requisites, such as a maximum number of UCAS points, a position of responsibility held with a student society and so on.
For work experience, the most you would want to spend is at least two weeks, maybe four. An article written by a journalist in our penultimate issue of the Readng’s student newspaper, Spark*, cited a student who was timetabled for one week of work experience with a newspaper, and in the subsequent weeks, there would be another student undertaking work experience for another week, and the subsequent weeks after that; this newspaper practically timetabled which student was coming when for an entire year. Given that this “work placement” was for a newspaper, how much can one week of work experience teach an individual when some are offering more weeks that have been tailored for the person on placement.
Most students opt for a gap year abroad and involve themselves with charity work, but with rising student debt, exactly how many young people can actually afford to spend money on time abroad without borrowing from Mum and Dad? Work experience of any nature has turned into an elite institution in its own right.
Despite the whole rallying cry for more practical or vocational skills, it is a tragic irony that resources to ameliorate those skills are in short supply, and that is something that no one in the higher echelons of authority have seemed to recognise.