David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.


Degrees of success: Events Education Explained

That title took longer to write than the remainder of this post, but then it’s been an interesting last few days for me attending a number of related events which have each featured some element of education and industry coming together (sometimes even in the same place).  That got me thinking about the age-old debate in HE about whether a degree is worth it (or necessary) in order to succeed within a particular industry sector – in this case events.  Two events brought to the fore these dilemmas (and challenges) facing educationalists.  The first of these was the Main Event, a trade show for the ‘events industry’ which takes place at the SECC in Glasgow. The event itself was run by one of my ex-students, Kirsty Hunter, which is itself an indication that a degree (1st class honours) is valuable (more of that later) but even more remarkable was the number of graduates that I came across at the show, all of whom were in work within the ‘events industry’. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most ambitious, conscientious, engaged and connected students impressed their employers – not only because they were in possession of an events degree – but that certainly helped alongside their drive to achieve.  One of the more disappointing elements of the event was the absence of a place where students could learn from experts in the industry in an interactive way. Students flock to this event on the look out for work (which does cause some consternation amongst the organisers) but I think they need to embrace their enthusiasm rather than be worried that prospective buyers might be turned away by their mere presence.  

Anyway the following day I took up an invite to attend a forum organised by Jacky (aka Martin Jack of Think Different Events) with his industry association ABPCO (Association of British Professional Events Organisers) hat on.  I was invited, alongside ex-colleague Jenny Flinn and ex-student Kirsty Hunter (yes, the same one) to the plush Beardmore Hotel to sit on a panel to discuss the relationship between industry and academic institutions vis-a-vis events education.   Being the sceptical sort, I had prepared for a pretty robust discussion on the relative value of degrees and I wasn’t to be disappointed.  But before getting to that subject, it is worth reflecting on a couple of really interesting insights which the Event Organiser’s Forum produced.  First, we had the pleasure of hearing from Ben Goedegebuure, Director of Sales for the SECC talking about the so-called Glasgow Model for conferences and events.  This model is interesting because it is built on the principles of partnership, risk sharing and co-production of events.  Universities could learn a lot from this approach in terms of how they engage with students, staff and other key staekholders (e.g. industry).  Another presentation which left an impression on me was from Graham Hopkins  (http://twitter.com/chooford) of Future Lab, talking about their conference and events tool, Event Eye.  Whilst prohibitively expensive at the moment (£10,000 per conference was mentioned) the platform does offer some really interesting applications for learning and teaching practice within universities. It is a  indexed, searchable, content aggregator that pulls together the best content from the web about a particular conference or event.  In HE we could use it to bring together all the social media materials being generated around a particular topic or event.  Blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages can all be pulled into one space, providing an excellent revision tool. 

I guess my main reason fro attending the forum was to participate in the industry/academic panel on “the needs of the events industry and the role academic institutions can play in providing students with the necessary skills”.  Not surprisingly, with a room full of industry members, there was a fair degree of scepticism towards the ‘value’ of event-related degrees and the straw polls which were conducted suggested that universities were not producing ‘exactly’ what the industry members present needed. I’m not going to rehearse all the main arguments here, but it is worth drawing attention to the following key points that I took from the ensuing discussion

  1. A lack of mutual understanding of what each organisation actually does.  By this I mean that in the course of the discussion it quickly became clear that the industry representatives, in the main, knew little about what the curriculum of event courses contained.  Similarly, the academics on the panel were left in little doubt as to what the industry needs were.  I’m a big believer in generating a platform for conversation to flourish and it is clear that in bridging a perception problem between both parties, events like the one organised by ABPCO are essential.
  2. A lack of clarity about what the event industry is and who represents it.  As an educator, I need to know the audience I’m addressing my questions to before I can be effective.  There was broad agreement that the event industry is broad, diverse and fast-paced.  The industry includes business events (conferences, exhibitions, trade shows, meetings and incentive travel) as well as leisure events (sport, music, culture, festivals).  I would argue that HE courses try to address both segments, but there is little agreement from the industry as to who is best to represent them.  We have Eventia, ABPCO and others vying for superiority and this can work against strategic agreement over what an events ‘graduate’ should be able to do on completion of their studies.  AEME has tried to provide a forum for educaitonalists and industry bodies to meet but we must do more to make this a reality.
  3. A (worrying) lack of confidence in the qualities of a graduate.  This was, for me, the most diappointing element of the discussion. There was support for the view that possession of a degree was not necessary to work in the industry (whatever that may be) and that students should, instead, work their way up through the accumulation of experience.  This is not a new debate but I had hoped that the discussion would have focused more on the potential or excellent, well qualified graduates, rather than on the problems associated with their short term competences and capabiltiies. I would argue strongly that HE courses need to provide an education (longer term) over training (short term) as employers will always need to introduce new staff into the peculiarities of their working practices. Graduates should be able to offer new ideas, innovative thinking, excellent personal and interpersonal skills, awarness of current (and future) trends – qualities which the most ambitious organisations should be grateful to receive.  I also believe (and argued strongly) that students are acutely aware of the need to secure experience prior to moving into employment and most courses in Scotland also structure employability into everything they do.  Of course we can do more and for that to work we need the commitment of the self-same employers who attended the ABPCO event last week. 

Finally, it is worth returning to the title of this post.  For those of us working in educational establishments that deliver vocationally-oriented degree qualifications, the political climate around HE is threatening.  We are well versed in the arguments about sub-standard degrees as a political tool, but we also have a task on our hands to persuade our most important stakeholders that what we do is worthy of their support.  I think the answer is to build something like the Glasgow Model, a partnership based on mutual understanding, reciprocal relationships, trust and co-production.  To progress, the industry needs the brightest minds with a real commitment to their sector.  More industry liaison – on our campuses – is required.   

David McGillivray • March 16, 2011

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