OPINION: Vocational courses are creativity's enemy

On Wednesday 28 January, while Tony Blair faced up to his moment of truth, we at PRWeek were looking at university education from a different angle. As reports came in that Blair had squeaked a narrow victory on tuition fees, a select gathering of the PR industry great and good were assessing the work of a selection of those students likely to be affected.

We were selecting the shortlist for the first ever James Maxwell award, created following the untimely death last year of one of the industry's brightest and most popular talents. In the process of building a highly successful business, James always put great emphasis on the importance of identifying and bringing on new talent. In his honour, a group of James's closest colleagues and friends gathered in Haymarket's offices on Wednesday morning to decide which were the most worthy candidates to put forward for a potential year of paid work placement at Ketchum, James's former company.

When we dreamt up the award, it seemed to be important to ensure it was open to all students, irrespective of which degree they were taking. This decision was to prove an enlightening one.

To say that the quality of entries varied would be the understatement of the year. Some were extremely thoughtful, with genuinely innovative ideas. Others looked as if they had been rushed off in the Student Union bar over a quick pint or five. But all were thought-provoking. The best candidates came from a wide variety of courses - including PR degrees - but the judges agreed that the quality of the candidates on more traditional courses generally outweighed those on PR degrees.

The differentiating factor appeared to be the ability to think around a problem. Those with less knowledge of PR applied their common sense and some genuinely original thinking. Too many of the PR undergraduates simply applied the textbook, drowning us in process and mistaking tactics for strategy.

Perhaps this is the legacy of the modern vocational course: students are taught to do rather than think. Rather than waste time on the self-indulgent, idealistic and philosophical meanderings that used to characterise studenthood, they are now expected to emerge from university with a full repertoire of techniques, ready to inject directly into the job market.

Tuition fees can only accelerate this process. Let's face it - who, with a debt of £30k hanging over their head, is going to study art or philosophy rather than business?

So, for the sake of the industry they feed, PR courses may have to work harder to produce graduates who, in addition to understanding process, still display the audacity to think outside the box.

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