Higher education used to be so much more straightforward. Traditionally, you either opted to study at university or you entered the world of work and got your education in 'the real world'.
The years following WWII saw the emergence of polytechnics that were designed to teach students skills relevant to the industrial economy. Because polytechnics awarded specific technical qualifications, a split between vocational and academic education remained.
At present, manufacturing is in decline and we're said to have entered a post-industrial, information age, where the manufacture of goods has made way for the trade in information and ideas. Art and design are crucial, and formerly academic creative pursuits now intersect with the burgeoning need for visual communication.
"Higher education is being repositioned as an industry, rather than as a social institution," says Patricia Gumport in her paper Academic Restructuring: Organizational Change and Institutional Imperatives. In short, creative skills have become a commodity.
Demand for software skills
The demand for skilled craftsmen has been replaced by demand for designers with technical skills, and this almost invariably means the ability to use design software.
"I can see why students might think the most important skills they're going to pick up are software because that's what the market is crying out for," says Lawrence Zeegen, academic programme leader for Communication and Media Arts at the University of Brighton. "If you look at most job ads, they'll ask for proficiency in Photoshop, InDesign or whatever."
Clearly then, universities should be offering tuition in at least the packages relevant to the discipline they're working in, but should students be specialising so early?
"The boundaries are blurring so fast and disciplines are combining. Agencies are now offering design, motion graphics and sound design," says Chris Kelly, creative director at Society Graphic.
As a result, students are feeling the need to cover as many packages as possible. "On the one hand, if you leave college with more under your belt, you've got more to offer to a potential employer," Kelly muses, "but then there's the argument that people should specialise more."
So should universities be investing more time in developing students' software skills? "There are courses that structure their curriculum around industry needs because then they can show they're getting results by sending people out into jobs directly from university," says Zeegen.
Kelly agrees: "There are some colleges that specifically teach software, and the students graduate with no knowledge of design and process, but they know how to operate Maya."
Zeegen argues that this is short-sighted: "If you've only got software skills, you're only going to be able to emulate the market you're working in and you'll ultimately have a short life-span as a designer."
History has proven that the demands of industry change. Remember the CD-ROM development boom of the early nineties?
Putting all your stock in the current crop of design applications has its risks as well. The software market is competitive - Adobe may have a stranglehold right now, but will this be the case in five years time?
If the demand for proficiency in an ever-increasing number of apps is set to continue, though, perhaps universities aren't necessarily where we should be developing software skills. If the industry is placing so much emphasis in software proficiency, there's always professional training.
Janet Ripley is sales and marketing director at Corps Business, which offers training and recruitment services for designers, "The sort of training we do is a sort of short, sharp shot to get somebody up and running in two or three days, whereas a university will spread it out over a whole year." She adds, "Certainly the skills have got much better in the last few years and they have become a lot more relevant."
Ultimately, it's up to the individual. University has never been about spoon-feeding its students ideas. "Universities are caught between a rock and hard place," Zeegen says. "At the point they graduate, students should be at least Mac or PC proficient, but a certain amount of emphasis must be placed on the students themselves. Our best students develop by putting the time in, with software it's a lot of trial and error."
It's this self-motivated learning style that we should all adopt, says Louise Morley in her paper Producing New Workers: Quality, Equality and Employability in Higher Education: "The idea that students should acquire everything they'll ever need to know in a supermarket sweep of a first degree works against the current European policy discourse of lifelong learning, the learning society and continuous professional development."