Your chosen specialised subject

As the economy grows, business degrees are being designed to hone specific skills

Adele Pearson, now 21, knew from the age of 11 or 12 that she wanted one day to work in travel and tourism. "People kept saying to me that I'd change my mind - but I never did," she says. "But I kept coming up against the same barrier: people saying tourism is not a proper subject, you should do something more academic."

Adele got five As, one A* and four Cs in her GCSEs, and teachers and careers advisers tried to persuade her to go in the direction of A-level geography.

"But I knew I wanted to be more specific," she says. She sought out a further education college that offered a BTech (now the AVCE) in travel and tourism, and from there enrolled for a three-year degree in tourism management at the University of Teesside. Now approaching her final exams, she plans to take a new PGCE in leisure and tourism next year at Bradford College, and go into teaching.

"It really annoys me when people don't see tourism as a proper subject - but that is changing now," she says. "If tourism is something you are really interested in, then it's a fantastic degree to do. It gives you the management side, and the practical side, and you get a chance to get out into the industry. It gives you multi-disciplinary skills, and that is very useful."

Ten years ago, young people with a practical bent and a nose for the commercial world might well have opted for a degree in business studies. But today's universities - and particularly the newer universities - have a much wider range of specialised, business-related degrees on offer, and increasing numbers of students, like Adele Pearson, are snapping them up.

"The development in business degrees is very much in line with the economy," says Dr Tom Mordue, senior lecturer in charge of the tourism management degree at Teesside University. "As the economy becomes larger and more segmented, in areas such as tourism, leisure and sport, knowledge about these areas becomes more important."

Students need to think hard about whether they will be best served by a straight business studies degree, or whether they should specialise in, for instance, tourism management, retail management, leisure marketing, hospitality business development or (increasingly popular) sports management.

These specialised courses ideally suit students who already know what they want to do when they graduate, advises Michael Blishen, marketing manager for the School of Services Management at Bournemouth University.

"For instance, if you know you want to be in shops, or you want to be a fashion buyer for Debenhams, you can do a degree in retail management. We like people who can say this sort of thing - rather than people who say, 'I did business studies at school and thought I might as well carry on with it'."

Bournemouth's School of Services Management admits students with the equivalent of three Cs at A-level. "Our students tend to be people who are reasonably outgoing and good communicators, who want a job that involves people and things, and who are quite excited by the idea of making things happen," says Michael Blishen.

Blishen himself spent the early part of his career in retail, working his way up from Christmas temp at Selfridges to shop floor manager at Harrod's in Knightsbridge. But the advantage for today's students in gaining a retail management degree, he says, is that they can move more swiftly into management positions.

Academic snobbery about degrees of this type is simply irrelevant, he argues: "The civil service might not rate retail management as much as, say, classics. But these students want to go into retail, and retailers will like this degree."

Sophie Havard, 22, is currently revising for final exams in retail management at Bournemouth. She took a GNVQ in business studies at school, and thought the idea of university "a bit daunting", until she discovered the Bournemouth course.

"Finance is not a great strength of mine, but I like the retail side, especially fashion. Buying and merchandising doesn't always get covered in business studies, but it makes this course more exciting."

She has enjoyed putting together a fashion portfolio, looking at the economics of international retailing, and undertaking a consultancy project in which she helped to launch a young women's fashion programme for a department store. Next year, she hopes to find a job in marketing, possibly with the House of Fraser where she did her work placement.

"The good thing about this degree is that it's so real life. All the theory you put straight in; it's not just reading it in a book, it's about applying it. And when you get out there, you'll be able to do it.

"I've gained a lot of confidence on this course. I like to think I've got fresh ideas, and that I can go to a company now and help them, operationally and strategically."

A mix of theoretical knowledge and practical application characterises many of these business-related degrees. But, as Tom Mordue at the University of Teesside argues, there is also a lot more academic potential here than some people might think - particularly in tourism, which extends beyond economics and business into culture and social science:

"The more academically minded students can run with this, and pursue it as an academic endeavour. For others who are more practically-minded, there are practical modules, such as organising events, and they can go on into the industry with quite a lot of skill."

Some students, he says, begin the course thinking of themselves as not very academic, but develop an interest, and come out with first-class degrees. "It's the kind of degree that throws up a few surprises."

Finding jobs is not, on the whole, difficult for these students once they graduate - though, as Peter Mason, head of tourism, leisure and sports management at Luton University, points out, they do not necessarily walk straight into management positions. Large companies - such as British Airways, or Thomsons - are more likely to provide opportunities for employees to rise up the management ladder, and look favourably upon tourism degrees.

With the recent growth of leisure and tourism in secondary schools and further education colleges, an increasing number of tourism graduates - often the more able, according to Peter Mason - are, like Adele Pearson, considering careers in teaching.

"It's all part of the growing maturity of the subject," Mason argues. "Fifteen years ago, tourism was a bit of a Cinderella subject, which people thought of as little more than going on jollies. But now it is almost seen as a real area of work..."

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