higher ed

Ain’t no such thing as a vanity course


Many of you will have seen the furore that arose when the Principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands (an institution I’ve got a lot of admiration for) said that “the days of having a vanity course, unit or subject are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.” He has since apologised and claimed he was misquoted.

The statement was symptomatic of a broader malaise in higher ed, especially acute in the UK, that cannot conceive of education that is not directly vocational. It started under Labour, with Gordon Brown (who is generally a decent chap) in 2007 ceasing funding for what was termed ELQ (equal or lower qualification) students – ie if you had studied before you couldn’t do more and get funding. This hit people who wanted to retrain, or those who wanted to study for leisure. We’ve had consistent attacks on “Mickey Mouse” courses from the Tories and cuts to Humanities funding.

What is particularly frustrating about this snobbish attitude to what counts as worthwhile learning is that it also runs counter to several other desired social outcomes that the same people profess. For example, the Government was so enamoured of the idea of interdisciplinary study that the OfS themselves gave the London Interdisciplinary School awarding powers. But interdisciplinary study is by its very nature less well prescribed and vocationally linked. It develops skills and approaches that are very useful in the work place, but it doesn’t qualify you as a Professional Interdisciplinarian.

Similarly, the focus on the digital economy and all those “jobs that don’t exist yet” claims means, if you really believe that, then training people for very specific jobs that exist now, is not developing your future work force. The digital economy is not comprised of just hard coders, but requires all sorts of varied skills and talents. If you’re creating a historical computer game then that history expert is now a vocation in the digital economy.

And lastly, lifelong learning is generally promoted as a good thing. Politicians don’t tend to say “I’m a proponent of one hit and you’re done learning”. Lifelong learning tends to involve learning over your life. Creating a context that actively works against that seems counter productive.

So there really are no such things as vanity courses. There’s popular courses, specialised ones, evolving topics and changing demographics. But successful learning is always relevant and pertinent to that individual, and creates flexibility and room for innovation in society more widely.


  • Gavin Moodie

    Thanx very much for this argument.

    I have been so familiar with the term ‘vanity course’ for so long that I was surprised not to be able to find much scholarly literature that uses the term. But what comment I did find reinforced my understanding that vanity courses are those which have trivial numbers of students and are offered because they are the academic’s specialist subject (Reader, 2012).

    This is rather different to the understanding of vanity courses presented here, and I suggest that there are vanity courses as understood by Reader (2012).

    Reader, P. (2012). Vanity! fair? Education Marketing, 26-27.


    • mweller

      Hi Gavin – actually that was my understanding of them too ie they were about the educator’s vanity rather than the students, but that is not how the UHI Principal was using the term, so I was using his phrasing for the bigger point (probably should’ve clarified though – thanks for the reference)

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