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Testing the value of event education

The debate over whether event industry degrees are valuable rages on. Emma Hudson talks to leaders on both sides to find some common ground.

I’ve just asked Richard Beggs, Moving Venues’ managing director, about the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality of many old school event professionals.

“There’s definitely a school of thought out there that says, ‘I got here without a degree – why should they need one?’” he says. “That’s nonsense.”

It’s one of the most hotly debated issues in the events industry at the moment: are degrees in event management, production and technology valuable in the working world?

Panellists at this year’s International Confex, which included Fay Sharpe, Liz Sinclair and Beggs, were polarised by the issue. At a recent industry conference, students from Silverstone UTC squirmed on stage as event professionals in the audience openly admitted to not employing students and recent graduates.

Needless to say, people aren’t hiding their opinions.

“I did hospitality and hotel management, and I’m a multimillionaire businesswoman,” Sharpe, director at Zibrant, told me. “I can only go by my experience. There are people who don’t have degrees who are successful. Some people have worked their way through the business – so it’s not an all or nothing thing – but we should encourage our young people to be educated and to grow.”

“It must be quite disheartening,” said Sinclair, managing director at ESP Recruitment, “as the event degree course fees are mostly going up to £9,000 a year this year, to think that you will leave university with £30,000 debt and the industry thinks your degree is pointless.”

Sinclair, far from thinking that a degree is pointless, started The Eventice programme four years ago to find jobs for the best event management graduates. The idea was partly to combat the feeling in the industry that recent graduates made poor employees.
“In 15 years of recruiting for the events industry,” she said, “we have only been asked for someone with an event management degree specifically twice, which is a very poor indictment of what the industry thinks of that qualification.”

Participants in The Eventice – based on BBC1’s The Apprentice – are all final year event management students. The final competition took place this year at the Event Production Show (EPS). Through various tasks and tests, the students showcased their skills and ability to industry professionals. They networked during EPS, allowing them to make contacts they wouldn’t be able to connect with otherwise. A panel of senior industry figures assessed their final presentations, with three winners given jobs with Eventice partners George P Johnson and Bluehat.

“Whenever we run The Eventice and people watch the students taking part and especially the final five do their presentations on the final day, they are really shocked at how professional and passionate they are and how much they have to offer,” Sinclair said. “They are often better than some of the candidates I interview who are on £22-25,000, but the industry would be able to employ these fresh graduates for £17-18,000. I really think the industry misses out on these candidates.”

“Are businesses underselling their own profession and industry by not wanting and expecting to recruit graduates that have already demonstrated their passion and commitment by studying events?” asked Glenn Bowdin, head of the UK centre for events management at Leeds Metropolitan University and an avid supporter of The Eventice. “Event degrees are one sign that our events industry is undergoing the process of professionalising.”

Leeds Metropolitan is recognised within the industry as being one of the best at integrating work experience into the academic demands of their degrees, along with Manchester Metropolitan University. They are part of a movement in the academic community, which includes newly minted technical college Silverstone UTC, to require work placement courses for would-be graduates.

“We deliver a business qualification along with other GCSEs and A levels,” said Silverstone UTC principal Neil Patterson. “We contextualise all the units with events management-type aspects. For example, our students have been backstage at the Horse of the Year Show, learning about set up and break down of events in partnership with Grandstand Group.”

Silverstone accepts students from ages 14-19 and offers courses in event management alongside its high performance engineering scheme. Students are provided with work placement schemes throughout their studies, which required Patterson and other top level staff at the school to convince employers to take the students on.

Patterson’s experience doing just that was positive.

“Generally, when we started explaining to employers what we were doing, allowing students to use their heads and hands, they all got it, they all understood how its better than just reading from a book,” he said.

“We’re getting students out in front of potential employers and de-risking it for employers.”

Most industry professionals agree that teaching anything about events management from a book is a pointless task.

“By the time the book has been written,” Sinclair said, “that technology will almost certainly be out of date.”

“The education system needs a more tailored syllabus and less people coming through but of a higher calibre,” Beggs said.

“What we do find is that the experience and knowledge gained academically doesn’t have proper relevance to what we need and therefore people have a low opinion of academic attainment. [Universities] are just churning these graduates out ad infinitum.”

Bowdin at Leeds Met insisted that the negative perception of students and graduates would only change when employers commit to working with them. “Many are already reaping the benefit of this approach,” he said. “Basing an opinion of all graduates and students with a small selection from the talent pool is doing our events industry, and the wealth of talented graduates and students, a disservice.”

It’s become so much a case of universities saying one thing and industry professionals saying another that Sinclair is now determined to start a forum for both sides to come together and find a solution.

“I think it has become more apparent that it is necessary,” Sinclair said. “Universities are having to defend themselves, the industry is very negative about these degrees and students are becoming disillusioned.

“Rather than everyone being negative, I thought I would try and set up some regular meetings between the two parties and try and get some communication between the two, which hopefully leads to change.”

Beggs wholeheartedly supports Sinclair’s idea for a forum. “It’s incredibly worthy,” he said.

“I would support it at the drop of a hat. I truly don’t think that major employers take academia with great seriousness. If they did, then why don’t we get a two- or three-day conference to thrash it out? It’s easier to complain about quality than to help make it better.”

Both Bowdin and Patterson emphasised that open discussion with the industry is key to helping them produce the best graduates.
“There aren’t two sides in this discussion. There are not two distinct groups and there isn’t one voice,” Bowdin said.

“We are all members of our events industry. There are many opportunities for our events industry to engage in discussions around education.”

“The raison d’être for us,” Patterson said, “is getting the industry working with education so that our product – the students – is fit for them.”
For employers like Sinclair, Beggs and Sharpe, hiring both graduates and candidates without degrees is just smart business. Beggs credits his success to employing a good balance of both practical talent and relevant academic learning.

“When someone walks through the door, what you’re looking for is determination, the willingness to go above and beyond the norm – someone who has a bit of passion about them,” Sharpe said.

Whether they hold a degree or not, the best candidate is eager to learn, has a bit of experience and, in Sharpe’s words, “has grit in them.”

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate – and, equally, there is room for improvement in both events academia and the industry. It’s time for both parties to sit down and create long-term solutions.

 

This was first published in the May issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson