Communiqué to universities from the Real World: it says ‘get real’
As an academic, I can only look with envy at people from ‘industry’ because if you come from ‘industry’ this gives you a license to pontificate upon things that you know fuck all about. You can assume that you live in the ‘real’ world, as opposed to all those feckless chancers in the public sector, like nurses and doctors, surrounded by the sick and dying; or civil servants who administer benefits to the elderly, disabled and jobless; or teachers charged with educating the young. You can assume that these people live in some cosseted fiction, the existence of which is in the gift of people like you. And so, when the likes of Lord Digby Jones has something to say, the world is expected to listen and take heed.
Recently Digby has pronounced, in his usual ebullient way, that universities should think about providing more vocational courses but that young people should consider not doing them. Diggers feels that many of the skills required in the modern work place might be better learnt through on the job training, an idea which strikes me as eminently sensible. However he is also reported as say that, “Too many universities have made a very quick progress to a place where actually today they are not too sure what they are there for and, of course, the world of work has changed.
“What the world of work needs out of universities has changed.
“A lot of them should look again and say ‘could I link in earlier with people, could I link in with schools better, could I get local businesses in better, and then can I produce something where someone is better skilled to face the challenges of today which might not necessarily end with the word degree’.”
Now this all sounds like irrefutably sound advice from ‘someone wot knows’. Who would argue with higher education being more vocational, concentrating on appropriate skills and training and therefore offering a proper preparation for the world of work? Who would take issue with such common sense emanating from the real world? Who indeed? Well, let me get the ball rolling.
First of all, what vocations should higher education prepare people for? What sort of workers does the UK economy need? Well, right now it seems that it needs less of them and this happens periodically, so why would anybody want to spend thousands of pounds on a vocational qualification for a job that might not be there at the end of their course? More to the point, given the extraordinary developments in our economy, technology, culture and work, many of the students currently in their first year of university will leave to chase jobs that don’t exist now, with skillsets we can’t even imagined. If students are expected to second guess what careers will be available when they leave university then I suspect that enrolment on the UK’s first degree in Clairvoyance is going to be spectacular.
Secondly, if you are serious about making higher education more vocational then you will have to massively increase its funding. Training and the development of skills don’t come cheap.
You see the great thing about ‘non-vocational’ courses like English, History, Philosophy – the sort of degrees that are often looked upon with circumspection by those that have the ‘national interest’ at heart — is that they are relatively cheap to deliver. But vocational courses require expensive equipment that needs updating to keep apace with industry standards. They are also more intensive in terms of teaching, since you can’t send vocational students off to the library all day to behave like ‘independent learners’. Training is a ‘hands on’ exercise, which means you’re probably looking at employing more tutors whose salaries are going to raise your costs.
Now Digby will no doubt have noticed (and approved of) the cuts in public spending. So who will pay for greater vocationalism in higher education? His mates in ‘industry’? There is not a snowball’s chance in Hell of industry bankrolling tertiary education in any meaningful way, which is why Digby is effectively recommending apprenticeships to young people. His comments about universities are just window dressing.