Vocational education in universities?

The word ‘vocation’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means ‘the action 0n the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature, or to fill a certain position’. The word implies both a status or profession, and a special calling (even if you leave out the religious reference).

It has become common in recent times to consider whether ‘vocational’ education should be an activity conducted in universities. The Guardian newspaper has recently hosted a discussion on this issue, in which some academics expressed a view that ‘training for work’ is not part of the academic mission. But is this a fruitful debate?  Is there really a strong intellectual separation between education in some wider sense and the acquisition of information and skills relevant to employment? If the latter is somehow improper in a university, then whole Faculties would need to disappear, in all universities including the most ancient. How, for example, could you then allow a law, accounting, engineering, or even medical degree?

It seems to me that this discussion takes us down a cul-de-sac.  What matters is not whether there is a relationship between a university education and a professional career path. Rather, what matters is that the university education observes the highest standards of intellectual inquiry and critique. Universities need to demonstrate that the skills they help to develop in students will serve those students well in later life. Insisting that such skills must not be ‘relevant’ is silly. Rather, they should encourage the sense of vocation, or ‘calling’, that should be part of every person’s working experience.

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13 Comments on “Vocational education in universities?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘Insisting that such skills must not be ‘relevant’ is silly.’ As silly as having the professional bodies purposefully set courses and exemptions that are different from those of the University.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    This isn’t just a debate which leads universities down a cul-de-sac; it’s a debate that would be likely to leave many of them bankrupt. Why would students go to university if it were not to gain skills and knowledge ‘relevant to employment’? If many courses of study were not vocationally-oriented, what’s the point? It would also kill off the cash cow of many universities: the graduate business school.

    When I worked at a university and ran open days – and now, when I work with clients trying to figure out a plan for their career path, which may include higher education – the question that comes up more often than most is ‘how will it help me get a job?’. For academics to argue that universities are not the place for vocational education, or to acquire skills ‘relevant to employment’, is the equivalent of shooting themselves in the foot.


  3. When academic colleagues say that ‘training for work is not part of the academic mission’, they are generally trying to retain control of the curriculum (and hence their own teaching work) against interference by others within the university (‘noddy training in teamwork’, ‘buzzwords’ are the phrases used in that Guardian link). So I think you are missing the point.
    This isn’t a debate about how students should be prepared for work, it is a part of the debate about how much control individual academics should have over their own workload.

  4. cormac Says:

    For most academics I know, the issue is not whether ‘training for work is not part of the academic mission’ but whether training for work is all of the academic mission.
    In the IoTs in particular, the latter was a guiding principle for some time. One problem is that it is hard to anticipate what the demands of the workplace will be 5 – 10 years down the road.Another, that too narrow a training does not develop critical skills, or leave students with the broad skills necessary for adapting to a changing environment

  5. Don Says:

    A difficulty that arises for university students in some vocational/professional degrees is that such a ‘calling’ from God (or whoever/wherever) has a tendency to isolate those students into a clique, and sometimes away from the general student body, in terms of academic and social interaction. Many med students in the uni where I work feel their ‘calling’ so strong that, in true Biblical style, they isolate themselves so as to better hear and understand their vocation and to achieve their status (implied by Ferdinand in his opening argument). A strength of any good university, and not observable in many, is the extent to which students who are on a degree path leading to a profession (such as Med, Law, Education, Nursing, etc) are allowed to interact (not just socially but academically) with students on other degrees in the same university. That is the measure of true UNIVERSal/ity education.

  6. jfryar Says:

    A friend’s son recently filled out a CAO form, which included electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, finance and humanities degrees. Anyone looking at his form would be instantly convinced that the student in question really didn’t have a clear career path in mind. And, having spoken to both him and his parents, they’d be right!

    Even if this student had 10 choices of law degree on his CAO form, would anyone honestly bet money on what job he would get at the end of that degree? Could one predict what area of law he would decide to go into? Can one claim law is a ‘vocational degree’ when former students become presidents/principals of universities?

    A lot of rhetorical questions there, but my point is I don’t really see a difference between ‘vocational’ and ‘non-vocational’ degrees. The aim is still the same – since we can’t predict exactly what every students’ job aspirations are, we teach a relatively broad curriculum within the field and let them decide where it takes them.

    That’s not to say we can’t make graduates more attractive to employers, but the distinction between degrees that are claimed to be vocational and those that are not seems somewhat fuzzy to me.

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    A distinction ought to be drawn between “vocations” (i.e, real callings), which have long had a place in the university and mere training of the uninspired for wage slavery, which has no place in the university. The mindset that cares about nothing but money and sees university education as nothing but a stepping stone to its acquisition (a stepping stone that one would do away with if one could attain wealth directly) is inimical to the ethos of the university, the widespread acceptance of recent perversions like Business Schools notwithstanding. The key distinction is not between the vocational and the non-vocational, but between the disinterested and interested pursuit of knowledge, where interest is, especially, financial interest.

    Matt Damon gets it, pity so few within or without the educational sector do.

  8. Al Says:

    A few points
    Third level claims to bestow skills in some immaculate sense.
    But skills only come from practise which we tend to call training.
    This nut needs to be cracked, how can third level allow their graduates the space to develop skill.
    I dont think can be put on an exam paper!
    The first to crack this properly will lead the way internationally
    Alan


  9. Could education be considered to be training in thinking? I generally consider the distinction to be of very little use.


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