As the debate about UK hospitality colleges continues to rage, we look at industry operators who are contributing to the practical teaching of students and find out how it's done in Switzerland. Jessica Twentyman reports
Rupert Rowley, head chef at Michelin-starred Derbyshire restaurant Fischer's at Baslow Hall, doesn't have much time for those in the industry who criticise the UK's catering colleges and hospitality courses.
After all, he reasons, the close links he has forged with his own alma mater, Sheffield College, haven't been solely of benefit to the students who attend catering courses there. They have also been crucial, he says, to the success of Fischer's and of its sister venture, nearby gastropub Rowley's.
Those links run pretty deep. For example, Rowley helps Sheffield College students plan the events that form part of their course and offers placements to third-year students as commis chefs in his restaurants. Twice a year he gives a group of seven students the opportunity to dine at Fischer's so they can see how a fine-dining restaurant operates from the customer's perspective.
In return, he says, his restaurants have been able to attract a constant stream of "talented, top-class" graduates who otherwise might have been lured away to London. In fact, 12 of the 16 chefs who currently work for Rowley in the two restaurants are Sheffield College alumni.
In addition, when one of his chefs, Sean Hagan, expressed an interest in entering the NZ-UK Culinary Challenge competition last year, Rowley enrolled the help of Sheffield College lecturer Mick Burke to mentor the young hopeful in his bid for the prize of an all-expenses-paid, five-week working tour of top New Zealand restaurants.
The effort paid off, and on receiving his prize from New Zealand High Commissioner Jonathan Hunt, Hagan was quick to credit both Sheffield College and his employers at Fischer's for the "support and inspiration" he'd received.
When industry insiders knock catering colleges, Rowley says, they often forget that those institutions are working to a wide remit. "They're not just preparing students to work in fine-dining restaurants, but also in hospitals, schools, fast-food restaurants - every area of the industry. They're there to give them a grounding in all aspects of catering, not just churn out top chefs," he says.
"If we want young people to be aware of the demands and challenges of a career in the fine-dining sector, then we need to get into colleges and promote the experience," he says. "Give me someone with basic knife skills, an understanding of how a professional kitchen works, and a willingness to scrub the floors, and I'll do the rest," he jokes.
While Rowley's admirable working relationship with Sheffield College has proved mutually beneficial, others in the industry are struggling to get similar arrangements off the ground. Back in May, for example, Andy Townsend, chief executive of Legacy Hotels, issued a challenge to colleges and universities through Caterer to let him know how they'd like to work with Legacy Hotels to make a difference in the amount of real-world experience that catering students receive.
What Townsend had in mind, ultimately, was to open up one of his hotels for students to run for a weekend at the end of their course. He received about 40 responses to the article.
"A small number were from the industry, saying they admired the stance I'd taken," he says. "Around a quarter were from people in the education sector who said they didn't know what I was talking about. But the largest proportion were from academics who picked up the gauntlet I'd thrown down and were interested in forming some kind of partnership with us."
By and large it was a promising start. But since then, negotiations have foundered - and, according to Townsend, that's not because the academics he spoke to weren't keen to offer their students more work experience opportunities, but because they're working in a highly restrictive environment.
One of the academics Townsend spoke to at length set forth the difficulties in a frank e-mail to him. "We have - because education is constructed in this way - a very tightly constrained set of parameters determined largely by governmental bodies and outside of our control," the lecturer wrote. The considerable obstacles included the length and structure of the academic year, the set patterns and times of assessment, and the way subjects were benchmarked, he added.
"It is the unstructured, flexible and highly responsive nature of your organisation that is likely to contrast so problematically with our own," the academic continued. "What listening to you made us all realise is that what we take to be flexible is (in your terms) so fixed it's almost solidly bolted to the ground."
Townsend says the exercise has taught him a lot about the nature of academia. "There are great people working in education who would seriously welcome industry's involvement in the programmes that they offer, but who simply don't work within parameters that enable the industry to collaborate with them - it's just not practical," he says.
He has come away from the experience with a certain sympathy for college lecturers in this position. "If there's going to be any negativity, it ought to be targeted at the Government," he says.
That's not to say, however, that many colleges aren't finding ways around these problems. "Of course we work in a bureaucratic system, but we could all make that excuse. If you don't have those links with industry, you simply can't give students what they need," counters Professor David Foskett, associate dean of Thames Valley University's School of Tourism, Hospitality & Leisure.
Students on the three-year degree course in hospitality management at TVU, for example, all spend a year of the course in work placements. "Some have gone to top London hotels, some to major contract caterers, some as far as Walt Disney World in Florida," says Foskett. Shorter placements are also a fixture of HND and NVQ level 2 courses at the university, he says.
In fact, the bigger challenge facing academia, according to Foskett, is the calibre of students enrolling for hospitality and catering courses. "The fact is that this industry is not promoted in schools. The most promising young people don't get to hear about the exciting opportunities for fast career progression and high salaries available in hospitality - they're pushed towards A levels and non-vocational subjects such as history and English," says Foskett.
That view is echoed by Dr Craig Thompson, managing director of the recently launched Centre of Applied Tourism and Hospitality Management (CATHM), based at the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort in Scotland.
And it has an effect on the finished product, too, he says. "The standard of graduates in the UK, particularly their work readiness and professionalism, is slipping further behind those from Continental hotel schools, and that leads to a lot of dissatisfaction among employers," he says.
With that in mind, he has worked with Macdonald Hotels to launch CATHM as a world-class training and education system along the lines of the Swiss hospitality schools. In terms of experience, Thompson is uniquely positioned. His previous job was as academic director of the Swiss Education Group in Montreux, but he has also worked in UK institutions, including the University of Derby.
"The difference between the UK and Swiss models is like chalk and cheese," Thompson says. "At UK colleges and universities, catering students live alongside students of all other subjects, and their only taste of the industry is work placements and internships. The Swiss schools immerse students in both the subject and the environment, and I see a real need to offer that kind of approach in the UK," he says.
The Swiss style of training produces a graduate not only with the skills and expertise needed to work in the industry, but also with the standards of professionalism expected, he says. These students are also better equipped to deal with working in a highly international team, where sensitivities to cultural differences are paramount, a trait he claims he has found lacking in graduates of UK colleges.
Because CATHM is a private establishment it won't be constrained by the bureaucracy that publically funded institutions have to deal with. And because Macdonald Hotels has poured £700,000 into the centre, it will have direct access to a wide pool of talent, both before and after students graduate. "Macdonald Hotels has between 150 and 200 vacancies across the group at any one time, and a third of these are at management level - so there'll be no lack of opportunities for CATHM graduates," Thompson says.
The first degree programme at CATHM is expected to begin in September 2008 and will cost about £7,000 to £8,000 a year. To many prospective students and their hard-pressed parents, that may sound prohibitive. Thompson argues that, given the top-up fees and accommodation and living costs that students pay to attend public universities, CATHM's fees are pretty comparable, especially as they include accommodation and meals throughout the course. In addition, students have the opportunity to recoup the fees in paid internships for Macdonald Hotels.
Even when they're not on work placement, students at CATHM will enjoy unrivalled access to practical experience, Thompson claims. "For example, if we're giving students a class on how to do the food and beverage costing for a meal in the morning, we'll be taking them across to the hotel in the afternoon to see a chef performing the same exercise for real," he says.
It's early days for CATHM, of course, but if its approach proves successful for Macdonald Hotels, then it may well be emulated elsewhere.
But for now, it's clear that, despite the best intentions of many in the hospitality industry and educational establishments, a yawning gulf remains.
A view from Switzerland
Students who graduate from the prestigious Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) are typically ready to take a managerial role at one of Europe's four- or five-star hotels or to run their own hospitality business, according to Robert Jenefsky, director of programming at the college.
That's down to EHL's rigorous standards of selection and its emphasis on teaching students about "the twin pillars of art and sciences" in hospitality, he says.
"The scientific aspect of the programme focuses on making the numbers work and making the correct business decisions," Jenefsky explains. "The artistic side is about developing the talents to stage a memorable hospitality experience for guests and the business creativity skills needed for innovation and leadership."
The four-and-a-half year Bachelor programme at the college is structured so that students learn "from the bottom up", he says. During the first year, they get a solid grounding in hospitality service fundamentals, with theoretical learning balanced with time spent working both in on-campus food and beverage outlets and in industry internships.
The second year is a broad introduction to the principles of hospitality management, with classes in accounting, economics, statistics, law, languages and communication, and IT competencies.
The final two years focus on advanced management theory, with a particular emphasis on process improvement, and include further time on industrial placement, this time at managerial level.
A vital element of the final year, Jenefsky says, is the Student Business Project, in which students work in teams of four or five on solving a real-life strategic challenge presented to them by executives of a leading hospitality company. They're then required to present their proposals to a judging panel that includes those executives alongside EHL faculty members.
"It's vital that our students can talk the same language as the top people in the industry. After all, we've trained them to become the top people of tomorrow," he says.