The number of degrees that focus on Digital Marketing is growing, but inflexibility, academic bureaucracy, and a lack of engagement with industry is undermining their value for employers.

Exam results were out last week, and with recession still very much on the minds of school leavers and recent graduates alike, the annual scramble for places is rather more vicious than usual. 

It certainly seems that when the going gets tough, the tough get educated, and it would be nice to think that at the very least, the end of the recession will see graduates from relevant, practical learning programmes entering the workforce with the skills they need to succeed.

However, despite a growing number of postgraduate courses, digital marketing is still woefully under-represented in academia, and those courses that do exist appear so wedded to traditional educational methods, I can’t help wondering whether they’re doing more harm than good.

There’s been a rash of courses focused specifically on digital marketing and its associated disciplines over the last couple of years, but rather than capitalising on the opportunity to provide some truly innovative teaching to a new industry sector, universities seem to undermine themselves, their qualifications and the industry.

It’s true that the shift in students’ interests from traditional, ‘glamorous’, above the line courses to digital has been less than energetic, but after a quick scout around the web, it doesn’t exactly look like an inspiring prospect. Prospective candidates are either faced by drab, outdated course outlines, inflexible study options and teaching faculties with little recent real world experience in evidence, or the kind of media hoo-ha which has surrounded courses such as Birmingham City University’s MA in Social Media

The overwhelming impression you’re left with is that digital represents a cash (and publicity) cow, with academic institutions pandering to fashion rather than producing well thought-out programmes which establish digital as a discipline in its own right. With industry response to these courses lukewarm at best, and candidates perceiving them as marginal and outmoded, led by tutors who know less than the web-savvy students, and imparting little but hard-won theory that will be obsolete before graduation, it’s not hard to see why they don’t attract hordes of eager marketing graduates.

This is a real shame, because not only are digital skills increasingly central to successful businesses, but as the sector matures, demand for structured, university accredited qualifications is growing rapidly.

Our own MSc courses, which hold adaptability and the partnership between academia and industry as the programmes’ central tenets, have attracted significant interest this year, with 60 new delegates due to embark on either the MSc in Digital Marketing Communications or Internet Retailing in September. And, after a few false starts, leading industry players do seem to be stepping up to the plate when it comes to attracting new blood. 

A number of trade bodies have recently come together to work on increasing recruitment into the sector and an interesting initiative in Leeds, spearheaded by regional agency Swamp, is directly targeting school leavers with a range of vocational qualifications and foundation degrees. But while digital marketing qualifications are either relegated to the margins or held up as some kind of fluffy ‘new media’ trophy, investing in the kind of commitment required to pursue a Masters will remain an unlikely choice for many.

All of which leads me to wonder whether we should be looking at a more radical approach to digital education. What should academic qualifications offer to be of real value to industry? Should we consider apprenticeship-style training a better way of developing new digital talent?

I’m keen to hear from anyone with first-hand experience, either from a student, academic or industry perspective, about your experiences of digital marketing qualifications. What constitutes a valuable digital marketing qualification? What do you look for when you’re employing graduates?  And what are your views on how to make qualifications more relevant?