Degrees and non-degrees

Yes, it’s that time of year again! (And I haven’t written on the topic lately so I’m not bored with it yet.) [Update: but I am bored with looking at it now so most of it’s going under the fold until I think of something new to say.]

The latest diatribe against Mickey Mouse HE courses (pdf) is out, ‘The Non-Courses Report’, produced by a group called the Taxpayers Alliance. And for once, there seems to have been some effort at proper research; not all of the courses listed are full Bachelors level degrees, but they do all seem to be at minimum Foundation degrees or other minimum two year courses. (So at least we’re not talking about another story that finds a single module or one-term course with a wacky title from a minute HE college that doesn’t even award degrees and then shrieks UNIVERSITY DEGREES GOING DOWN THE TUBES!!!)

The report is a fascinating mixture of the sensible, peculiar and shoddy. The authors say they have asked two questions, which sound fairly reasonable:

Does the course require scholarship in areas that could reasonably be defined as academic?

If the course imparts practical skills only, is there a good reason it should be learned in an academic environment, rather than on the job or as part of genuine vocational training?

I tend to share the authors’ belief that aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy have no place in a reputable HE institution, for example. And what are all these ‘Outdoor Adventure’ courses? What does that mean? (Is it a gimmicky term for some kind of Sports and Tourism hybrid outgrowth?) And incoherent Joint honours degrees have always irritated me. Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy? Hairdressing and Media? “Physical Activity & Health and Creative Writing”? What sort of subject construction is that?

However. There are some methodological concerns here, and some rather sloppy and easily spotted errors. It gives me some misgivings that Manchester Metropolitan University appears twice in the list of institutions, and that my own alma mater, Aberystwyth, appears in the institutions list as having 2 ‘non-courses’ and then has at least 3 entries in the full list of 401 courses. (And that was the only one I looked for. How many more errors like this?) I would also like to know exactly which of these courses are full Bachelors degrees and which are Foundation degrees or other HE diplomas. We are not told in the majority of cases.

The methods used to count courses cause me further concern. Basically, they count by UCAS course reference numbers. So ‘Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy’ and ‘Philosophy with Outdoor Adventure’, from the same college, are counted as two courses. Every slight joint honours variation at an institution will be listed separately. Sometimes there are multiple listings from one institution with exactly the same course title, so it’s hard to say what the exact difference between them will be (since many are vocational degrees, it could be the difference between a 3 year course and the 4 year version including 1 year work experience). Are they really all discrete courses? In terms of administration and costs, they’re certainly not, and that matters here since the authors’ argument is largely about the cost of these courses.

The bigger issue though, as always, is the decision-making criteria and selectivity. Who decides what is a ‘non-course’, and how did they do the research? This, you should be aware, is coming from authors who consider Caribbean Studies ‘esoteric’; although they decided not to include the subject in their non-courses, that label (and the implication that they considered it for inclusion at all) is a little worrying.

Most of their targets are the growing plethora of specialised business and industry-related degrees. I share their concerns to some extent, though my main beef is that many of these sound excessively narrow, rather than that they inevitably contain insufficient academic rigour; I would want to know about the general structure of the courses before making judgements. If decently constructed with a mix of general business studies and the more specialised elements of a particular industry, well, maybe they’d be OK. (And this can be simply a matter of marketing; some institutions go in for all these multiple tiny joint honours variations in their catalogues, but these may in practice have the same content as other institutions’ more generally-titled ‘Business/Management’ offerings. Did the authors look as carefully at those?)

There are specific choices, though, that puzzle me. They really have it in for all Equine-related courses, but why, since this doesn’t generally extend to Sports Studies/Sciences courses? What is it about horses that puts them beyond the pale? And then, for once there are remarkably few cultural studies targets. But actually, the sparsity of these raises questions about the examples that have been chosen. Why does a course on ‘science fiction and culture’ have so much less credibility than more traditional literary/cultural offerings such as Romanticism or 18th-century novels? (On further investigation, it sounds like an interesting course to me, in fact; it’s not just science fiction, but, by the sound of it, an interdisciplinary exploration of the roles and images of science in modern society.)

And then, back to my alma mater again. Why on earth does Aberystwyth’s Film and Television Studies degree get singled out for attention, out of all the Film courses now available around the country? You see, on this one I have some insider knowledge. I took a good old-fashioned BA in History myself. But I lived for three years with someone who took that Film & TV studies degree. I can tell you a good deal at close quarters about its mix of academic theory and professional practice. It’s a more practice-oriented course than many in the field, it’s true (though it’s developed its academic profile substantially within the last decade). Students make films and learn how to make television programmes – none of which is easy. (And in any case, how does that differ from all the practical and production aspects of drama degrees, which don’t get attacked?) But they also take plenty of courses in conventional film genres and theories, in the history and culture of film and broadcast media, and in some of the most cutting-edge academic research out there on film audiences and media reception. (I proofread a good proportion of the essays my friend wrote. The topics set did not lack academic rigour.)

Let me make this absolutely clear: the authors have really, really screwed up in labelling this degree as a ‘non-course’.

And here’s the thing. When you read a report that mentions one case that you know about in some detail, and you know they’ve got it hopelessly and utterly wrong, how far can you trust the rest of it? Doesn’t it inevitably colour your view of their assessment of the 400 cases of which you don’t have personal knowledge?

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3 Responses to Degrees and non-degrees

  1. Tony Keen’s posted on this, too. I’m in two minds, because I see so many colleges and universities adding what are really vocational programs as degree programs, and I think many of them are wrong for university degrees. Having said that, it’s partially because I really think there’s nothing wrong with not having a uni degree. My parents and grandparents don’t have them and have perfectly decent (and better paid) lives.

    I’m thinking of this now in the middle of the annual ‘GSCEs have got easier’ kerfuffle. The interviews with the examiners made it clear that one could get a pass and not actually be able to do any significant amount of maths — but a pass is a D (which makes one wonder why there are gradations below that level). One thing that confused me is the ‘5 marks of C or better’ thing. Is that the minimum to apply to uni? or the minimum to be able to say that one has the marks to count as roughly equivalent to our high school diploma for the job market? Because they are — and I think should be — two separate things.

    At any rate, I think that so much of this is buying into the model of ‘universities are businesses and much cater to the customer.’ Me, I think universities should be equated to other social goods — health care, libraries, public transport, etc. — they may actually lose money, but they do immense social good that can’t always be measured. Except that it can — I mean, we can do estimates of time and pollution and traffic congestion saved by public transport, and we can look at the kinds of jobs uni graduates do. But unis and libraries and museums are kind of less tangible in their benefits.

  2. Sharon says:

    I don’t know anything about GCSE gradings, but I suspect your ‘5 marks of C or better’ is a school league tables measure rather than anything meaningful to individual students. You can’t apply to university from GCSEs, and I’m not sure if there are any set GCSE requirements for going on to A levels (there never used to be…).

  3. Pingback: Redemption Blues » BritBlog Roundup 132

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