Academic and Vocational Qualifications – what’s the difference?

Monday, December 25th, 2006

One of the big problems we face in design education is the still popular notion that degrees in design are ‘vocational’. They aren’t. A degree is, by definition, ‘distinctively academic’, no matter what subject it is in.
Unfortunately, this is generally forgotten or even unknown to a large number of employers, students and – worryingly – teachers.
In the UK we have what’s called a ‘qualification framework’ which is overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). This lays out a range of qualifications and levels defining (admittedly in quite woolly terms) the difference between what a student on the first year of a degree course should be expected to know compared with, say, a final year student, or an MA student. (The fact that a first year undergraduate should not be expected to have the same level of understanding of a topic as the post-grad teaching them is sadly forgotten by a significant number of teachers).

There are two basic types of qualification: a vocational one, and an academic one. Neither is better than the other, they are simply different, intended for different purposes. I can’t do the system justice by boiling it down like this, but essentially a vocational qualification should be your choice if you want to do something without necessarily understanding the bigger picture, while an academic qualification takes in the bigger picture but may still enable you to practice – though the possibility of you practicing the subject is just that: a possibility, and not a given.

So if you want to be a lawyer, you would choose a BA in Law, but if you want to work in one area of law, or advise people, or run a law firm, a vocational qualification might be the ideal choice (vocational qualifications are – or should be – designed to be studied while the student is working if necessary).
Similarly if you wanted to be a researcher in art or design history, a BA in the subject is ideal. But if you want to run a museum then a vocational qualification in museology might be better.

What I don’t think many people get is that you can have an academic qualification in a vocational subject, and a vocational qualification in an academic subject. And this failure to ‘get’ it is why we have degrees in some subjects when they should be vocational qualifications (in the UK the two main types of vocational qualifications are the Higher National Diploma – HND – and the Foundation Degree – FdA – which is largely replacing the former).
Design educators who claim a design degree is ‘vocational’ are missing the point. There has to be a difference between a BA and an FdA, and the difference is the type of things studied and the depth to which they are studied. A BA in graphic design is not simply a two year FdA with a dissertation on top and a bit more time to work on your portfolio, which is exactly what a lot of design degrees are.

To give an example, there are many many design students on BAs who would be much happier on FdAs – and many design teachers who would be happier teaching on them too. Equally there are many design students and teachers who would love to study and work on academic design courses but find themselves trapped in poorly disguised and mis-labelled vocational courses which aim only to turn out designers.

The problem is that the industry recruits graduates for ground-floor jobs, then complains that the graduates are not ‘right’ for the job. That’s because the job isn’t graduate level. But instead of doing what the FdA was designed to do – giving employers a say in the creation of qualifications that suit their needs, and enable them to recruit someone from school and send them on a part-time FdA while giving them real-world experience – they continue to recruit graduates and seek to influence what is taught and how it is taught. In effect, the design industry appears to be trying to turn degree courses in to FdAs and HNDs instead of simply sponsoring new vocational courses.

There is enormous value in studying design at degree level, but there are too many students who simply want to work as designers without understanding the bigger picture, (and, conversely, not enough people who see design as a legitimate area for academic study). That’s not their fault – it’s ours, and industry’s (for insisting on degrees for jobs that don’t need them). Worryingly, there are many design degrees which do not actually meet the criteria for a degree, simply being vocational training courses stretched needlessly over three or four years.

I don’t agree with Creative and Cultural Skills that there are too many design students – the more people who study design the better design will be understood by clients and consumers (Margaret Thatcher knew that, which is why she insisted that craft and design be part of the national curriculum in schools).
But there are too many people on the wrong courses, and too many courses of the wrong type. What CCS should be doing, instead of criticising academics and trying to shut down courses and prevent people from studying design at degree level, is telling its constituency to stop recruiting graduates to non-graduate positions, to begin recruiting people at a younger age and sponsoring them through a vocational qualification (instead of criticising school curricula as well as university courses), and respect the value that design studied in an academic environment brings to the industry and the world in general.

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