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Back to the Future?
By Peter Spencer, Faculty of Organisation and Management, Sheffield Hallam University
It can be a dangerous business predicting the future. Much like one of those earnest 1970s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ features, replete with improbably flared trousers and orange tank-tops, prediction has a way of returning to embarrass those who present such well-meaning glimpses of the ‘future’.
‘Management’ or ‘Studies’?
It ought to be stated plainly that, for many practitioners within the academy. There no longer exists a clear certainty of purpose in higher education. Successive governments – through their many agencies – have successfully sought to reconfigure higher education from a previous position in which the focus was essentially the personal development of the individual, to one in which the needs of the state (national economic competitiveness) is now the dominant paradigm. The conflation of national economic imperatives, the notion that skills are the key driver of this process, and the view that it is the task of education to provide this function, now go virtually unchallenged.
Hospitality education is an interesting case in point. Several years ago – as the reforms of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications began to sweep away decades of established hospitality education practices – I was engaged in a national research project into the changing nature of craft-based hospitality education. The outcome of this research caused me to profoundly readjust my perspective on the nature and purposes of vocationally-based education.
Over the past 20 years, the nature of vocational education has been reconfigured and is now a much more singular and unified process than at any time in its past. Higher education institutions which once had a particular focus on hospitality (systems, technical, managerial and so on) have now been homogenised into offering a ‘standardised product’ – the inevitable outcome of benchmarking and the dead hand of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Further education also suffered with previously well-respected and highly valued craft-based courses being reduced to shadows of their former selves. The intended outcome of all of the changes wrought to vocational education over this period appears to be predicated on the need to address national economic concerns, resolve skill shortages and produce work-ready employees.
However, there appear to be some difficulties with this intention. Education continues to be assaulted with ever more initiatives in order to lock it into its new role; Sector Skills Councils continue to report fundamental skill shortages (as do employers), despite the rather embarrassing fact that national targets (NETTS) set for increasing vocational qualifications in the workforce and announced as the ‘solution to our skills needs in the 21st century’ appear not to have achieved the desired outcome. Despite the fact that the targets were met ahead of schedule, employers continue to complain that employees do not have the necessary skills needed by industry. The continuing use of qualifications in government statistics as meaningful proxies for skills further exacerbates this issue.
We have it seems, reconfigured our curricula, educational practices and philosophy to no great purpose. Government and its agencies continue to press for ‘supply side’ solutions for demand-based problems and (it seems) we remain happy to oblige. Twenty years ago hospitality craft students received an average of 28 hours per week of classroom-based instruction. Today this figure has fallen by almost two thirds to around 11 hours (with disastrous results for skilled performance and understanding). In higher education, the picture is scarcely better. Vastly increased participation rates over this same period, together with a constantly falling unit of resource (we now teach more than twice as many students with half the amount of money as we did 20 years ago) have forced radical revisions both to the number of taught hours and (perhaps more crucially) ‘resource intensive’ provision such as practical facilities. Few HEIs now posses the means to provide their students with a structured practical engagement in the fundamental activities of hospitality as part of their curriculum.
At a time when the concept of ‘skill’ dominates educational discourse to such a degree that it forms part of the title of the department charged with administering higher education and appears in the latest requirements for doctoral study, it is interesting to reflect that the collective capacity of education to deliver skills has never been lower. Research into skill acquisition and deployment continues to indicate that skill acquisition is proportionate to exposure and practice. Definitive studies show that it takes over 3,000 hours of purposeful study, practice and repetition to acquire skill to a level commensurate with higher level qualifications. Our current system on the other hand requires students to engage with large numbers of subjects over vanishingly small timescales before moving on to the next collection of subjects the following semester. The sum of these increasingly ‘atomised’ portions of time that the average undergraduate student receives is less than one third of the amount of time needed to acquire an appropriate level of skill in one subject, let alone the 25 or so we routinely require our undergraduates to undertake in the course of their degree.
It hardly needs saying that repetition and practice (the fundamental predicates of skill acquisition) are not the stock in trade of higher education. Indeed, it would be much more appropriate to assert that higher education proceeds on the notion of a rational structuring of knowledge, together with the insights gained from such a process. As the philosopher R S Peters remarked as long ago as the 1960s, ‘skill does not proceed as a matter of insight’ and (inversely) one might add as a corollary to the great man’s remarks that thinking about hospitality does confer upon the thinker the ability to do it.
So where might all this leave us? And more particularly, where might it lead to?
It seems clear that there is a serious paradox at the heart of current notions of vocationally focused approaches to education. On the one hand there is the rhetoric which claims that our national economic wellbeing is contingent on increasing our national skills base at all levels of educational attainment (employability skills now figure in PhD learning outcomes) and that it is the task of education (rather than industry) to provide this. On the other hand, there is the reality of vocational education which appears to be configured in such a way that the constraints of time, resource and structure seem to render it structurally incapable of delivering such a mandate.
This would seem to place the current demands required of hospitality education in something of a classical ideological dichotomy, in that the rhetoric – and control of the supply side ‘drivers’ - masks the reality and the contingent outcomes which are able to be delivered by the education system. There is here (despite the bluff and bluster from government and its agencies) a profound mismatch between what we are being asked to provide and what we are able to provide. In the process, it would seem that we are in danger of substituting the lasting virtues implicit in the acquisition of a higher education for the transient (and seemingly) unobtainable advantages of national economic interest. As the ever-insightful Laurie Taylor recently remarked in his Times Higher Educational Supplement column, commenting on the rapid rise and fall of education ministers – ‘education, unlike a ministerial job, is for life’. Those who find themselves propelled by the ministerial revolving door might do well to contemplate his sentiment.
The future health of hospitality management education - like much of higher education – remains in some doubt. We might conclude, given the history of our subject, that like our Victorian computer’s analysis of transport, a less than optimistic view of the future is the outcome of such an analysis, or like Mr Micawber, adopt the view that something’s bound to turn up. For my part, I am rather drawn to a view like that of the chap who, finding he was lost in an unfamiliar city, flagged down a taxi for help. He told the cabbie his destination and asked for directions; the cabbie looked thoughtful for a while and said: ‘Well if it was up to me mate, I wouldn’t start out from here!’
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