Leading article: Stop knocking golf degrees

This week, the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) becomes the first teaching union to come out publicly against the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of under-30s to university by 2010.

This week, the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) becomes the first teaching union to come out publicly against the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of under-30s to university by 2010. It may seem daft to take anything that the PAT says very seriously, particularly in the silly season. It was, after all, the union that debated making dogs into teaching assistants. At last year's annual conference, the PAT chairman inveighed against Kylie Minogue's bottom. But the union's new campaign against the Prime Minister's 50 per cent target requires comment because it will grab the headlines and lodge in many minds.

The Government's determination to get one-half of young people to go to university is driving the growth of "Mickey Mouse" degrees, says Peter Morris, a PAT official. Ministers should be putting the money into high-quality, job-related courses instead. Subjects such as surf and beach management at Swansea Institute of Higher Education devalue academic and vocational education, he adds. Many traditionalists will agree with him. But they are wrong. The BA at Swansea Institute is precisely the kind of course that should be encouraged. It is vocational, and it is a subject that students want to study. It will boost the setting up of small- to medium-sized companies, which are of vital importance to the British economy, especially in areas such as Wales and the south-west.

The fact is that the UK comes lower than halfway down the OECD league table in the numbers it has in post-school education. We are a notoriously low-skilled nation. Morris does not spell out what the "high-quality, job-related courses" are that he wants to see the Government introduce. Successive governments have spent a huge amount of time and energy on vocational courses, many of which have not succeeded in capturing the imagination of young people or the confidence of industry. It is easy to make cheap shots about "Mickey Mouse degrees" - and the 50 per cent target is certainly an arbitrary one - but we would argue that it is better to have degrees that teach golf management or modules in coastal conservation, customer care and surf entrepreneurship than not. If a few of these graduates go on to set up their own golfing enterprises in the Highlands or surfing businesses in the Gower peninsular, these degrees will have been worth it. The expansion of higher education is a good thing because it gives more people more opportunity.

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