What harm has Mickey Mouse ever done to anyone? No, I can’t think of anything either ... so how has poor Mickey’s name become associated with the worthless and the risible? Back in the summer the Sunday Express gave us this:

“…a stark warning from the British Chamber of Commerce: do not go to university unless you plan to study something useful. Policy director Dr Adam Marshall said: ‘There may be a course in underwater basket weaving but that does not mean anybody will actually want to employ you at the end of it.’ Universities should be banned from running Mickey Mouse courses that are best left to further education colleges.”

Poor Dr Marshall was on the receiving end of quite a lot of stick for this, but he was set up. It was that last sentence that seemed so gratuitous.

Of course, poor Mickey’s crumbling reputation is all the fault of Margaret Hodge (BSc Third Class). In 2003 she opined that a Mickey Mouse course: ‘is one where the content is perhaps not as rigorous as one would expect and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market’.

Here comes Alan Johnson (11+) in the Guardian:

“We must rebalance taxpayers’ money towards the subjects where there is greatest need – so more plumbing, less Pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging…”

Johnson went on to suggest that …

“Teachers and politicians should stop talking about ‘vocational’ courses and use the word ‘professional’ instead, as part of a drive to recruit young people with skills needed by industry and ‘end our endemic prejudice against vocational qualifications as inferior to academic achievement’.”

“The former postman said: ‘I would be quite happy to lose the word ‘vocational’ completely from our school dictionaries if it was proved to deter people from taking these vital courses.’”

He has a point, though the Guardian reporter (now Head of Communications for the Russell Group) just had to use that ‘former postman‘ prefix.

Indeed, scratch the surface and the class-based sneering is almost always there, even among Mickey’s friends. Here is Boris Johnson (BA Literae Humaniores) coming out in defence of poor Mickey:

“Kids these days! says our man with the pint of Stella, slapping the Daily Telegraph on the bar. Look at the rubbish they study!
… Why, he asks rhetorically, are we paying for students to waste their time on these Mickey Mouse courses, when it is perfectly obvious what they should be doing. Trades! Skills! Craft! … they would have been far better off getting stuck into a job after leaving school and engaging in an old-fashioned apprenticeship.”

Strip the tech out of a town and we’d all go shaggy and starve and have to walk everywhere.”

Yet we all interact daily with people who are the products of FE – the hairdressers, car mechanics, restaurant staff, receptionists … so how does FE achieve such apparent invisibility?

It’s partly that their achievements are badged by the exam boards. That framed certificate is branded by Edexcel, not by FE. But ask any cabby for the local college and they will say, ‘You mean the Tech?’ and take you there while telling you all about the courses they and their kids have attended.

Strip the tech out of a town and how would you ever get anything fixed, cut or cooked? We’d all go shaggy and starve and have to walk everywhere. Next time you get your hair cut or your car repaired, ask them where they trained. I guarantee the ‘tech word will crop up.

Wasn‘t it Kenneth Baker who invited the ‘Cinderella sector’ to come onto the dance floor? He is now busy with his university technical colleges, which have the revolutionary idea of training 14–19 year olds in practical vocational skills. My old dad knew about those in the 1930s – I still have the agreement signed by him, his employer and Leicester Tech in 1933 for his apprenticeship, recently rediscovered with delight by Asda

Let’s allow Boris the last word:

“It is ridiculous for these saloon-bar critics to denounce ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, and say that the students would be better off doing vocational courses – when the whole point is that these degrees are very largely vocational.
It’s just a pity that he didn’t pause to consider who is fixing his bike or styling his hair.”