Why Should We Have to Retrain Graduates?

First published on the former Public Impact Blog in March 2013

In recent months we’ve come across a number of articles and blog posts lamenting the quality of design graduates being produced by universities and colleges in the UK. It is almost a hackneyed cliché to moan that the education system is ‘not responding to the needs of modern businesses’. But why should we have to retrain graduates who don’t have the basic skills necessary for commerical design or content marketing?

The worst thing about this recurring gripe is the queue of (usually) right of centre politicians lining up to nod in agreement or to see it as validation of their simplistic, ‘back to basics’ calls for addition ‘rigour’ in our schools.
Above: Fundemantal typographical skills are frequently missing from the armoury of today’s design graduate. 


Nonetheless my colleagues and I find ourselves wondering exactly what it is that design schools are trying to teach and if it bears any relation to the requirements of the ‘real world’ (or even its virtual counterpart). In talking to students and lecturers alike we see a disturbing lack of grounding in the basic skills that are required to work in a studio across a broad spectrum of delivery channels. We also see the requirements of the purely academic asserting themselves over the vocational.

We cannot help but conclude that the absorption of the colleges of art and design into the expanding ‘universities’ during the past couple of decades has produced nothing of any value. The object of the exercise should have been to raise standards, modernise courses and to produce a better standard of graduate. As it is I am uncertain of the benefit – degree certificates may have replaced HNDs and diplomas but beyond that we’re struggling.

Sometimes we wonder if we are expecting too much. But is shouldn’t be  unreasonable to expect any design graduate to understand and have experienced the typical software used in design houses; neither should it be unreasonable to expect that they will have experience of multiple platforms – PCs as well as over-priced Macs. If that IS too much to expect why would it be unreasonable to expect that a graduate would have the ability to prepare a file for press, to set up standard features like master pages or templates, to know when and how to use a baseline grid, or understand the fundamentals of typography? Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that any self-respecting design graduate would at least have heard of the concept of widows and orphans even if they can’t remember which is which. And even if this is all out-moded stuff that doesn’t any longer matter why do we encounter web designers with no concept of what a search engine does and why that matters to the sites they wish to build?

It is easy to trivialise, but these are fundamental skills for any studio-ready graduate and in our experience students simply don’t know. These skills are just as important to the notion of teaching creative process and creative thinking because without them they will struggle to get past their role as a junior. If I had paid £27,000 for an essentially vocational degree that didn’t equip me for the basics of work I would be looking for my money back. £27,000 buys a lot of on the job training for potential apprentices who are much better placed to be useful without the salary expectations that accompany a university degree.

Talk of ‘rigour’ misses the point. Universities need to look at themselves, how they re-connect with the creative industries and what they are delivering in return for their fees or eventually students and businesses will vote with their feet.

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