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Communiqué to universities from the Real World: it says ‘get real’

July 26, 2010

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.

Lord Digby Jones

“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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2010 12:33 pm

    It’s the Big Society, Rab! And it’s coming to a university near you!

    I think our Digby is bang on. Universities, after all, are funded from the public purse so it’s only right that they should subsidise the private sector and save it a fortune on training and apprenticeships. Public private partnerships – remember them?

    However, Digby wants to have a chat with Dave about how his big vision could be implemented using the evidently road-tested principles of the Big Society.

    Let’s get rid of the Vice Chancellors, the academic managers and those superannuated academics who can’t even toilet train their own kids, never mind prepare young people for the world of wage slavery…I mean, work.

    Yes, bring in parents and industry people to run our universities. Make universities accountable to those who have a stake in the kind of graduates they produce. Tutors would teach on a commission only basis, awarded for each graduate they pass through the system; penalised each time a student fails or leaves early. That’ll learn em! Five day weeks, 9-5! And no more long summer holidays and “research days”. That would mean more time to push through more graduates with one or two year qualifications…

    Sorry, Rab? What was that? A problem, you say? What problem? You’re so negative. A glaring example of all that’s wrong with higher education.

    The Big Society is where it’s at, comrade. Empowering communities to run universities into the ground. It’s inspiring.

  2. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 26, 2010 5:11 pm


    I agree.

    But here’s the thing: what do you, as a practicing academic, think universities should be for? How many of each generation should be admitted? What is a fair balance between 100% state funding for each student (such as I enjoyed – including a 100% grant) and individuals coughing up part of their own living expenses and teaching costs?

  3. Rabelais permalink*
    July 26, 2010 6:28 pm

    Hi Charlie,
    University should be for 3 or 4 years…. Oh, I think I’ve done that joke already on an earlier post.

    I don’t think there is any justification for charging anybody anything for a place in university, which sounds mad doesn’t it because what if everybody or even 50% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 wanted to go, it’d be a massive drain on the public purse.

    But I don’t think that huge numbers of either reluctant or bewildered young people should be corralled through higher education. It’s a waste of their time and money, and its a waste of public time and money, as well.

    So I’d reduce the numbers going by admitting only those that have an aptitude for it and actually really want to go. At the moment there are too many young people who are neither prepared for university nor want to be there.

    And there are two immediate consequence to the insane expansion of HE:

    1. standards slip (despite protestations to the contrary, if you have students who really can’t cope with the demands of university then, with the best will in the world, courses begin to ‘compensate’ for them)
    2. universities suffer an identity crisis because they feel obliged to be all things to all people. This in turn makes it very difficult for universities to construct a convincing narrative about what they are for, about their value to the broader cultural and society.

    As a consequence of reducing the numbers and making it free again you could begin to offer places and incentives to mature students, who might otherwise have been herded onto course earlier in life, been poorly served by the experience because they just weren’t ready for it, never to return again.

    So what are universities for? Well, I’d say they should be for people who are intellectually curious about a subject or discipline. They should be for people who need an academic and theoretical understanding of their chosen profession. There probably should be less off them. There definitely should be more non-traditional routes into them and flexible modes of study once you are there.

  4. Affer permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:03 pm

    I do think that Digby Jones is a self-serving knob and rent-a-gob, and I do think his comments were wide of the mark. But I also think that there is a need for some ‘balance’ between the Employer and Academic sectors.

    When I first left Industry and entered Academe, I was astonished – to put it mildly – at how badly out-of-date, and out-of-touch, much of the delivered material was. Let’s be honest here: there are a whole bunch of Lecturers who deliver topics on which they have no real experience, merely because they are the only ones available! This is NOT the fault of the Lecturers, however. I hold that the fault lies firstly with Academic Managers (now THERE is an oxymoron!), HEFCE and Government because it is practically impossible for the deliverers of knowledge to ‘top-up’ their skills through active involvement with employers.

    Secondly, I blame the Employers. There was very little dissent from them when the UK’s highly effective Polytechnic system was dismantled. And they all rubbed their hands with glee as Industry Training Boards were dismantled, because it saved them money. And despite having saved the dosh, they didn’t put much investment into training – many companies used to put promising young workers through external education and training….they don’t now!

    Meanwhile, what now exists is some mighty quango called the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils whose purpose seems to be to further the aims of….the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils. Linking with Academe? Nah….well down the list!

    I think there is much that is wrong with our Higher Education system: it needs a damn good prune. But given Digby Jones’s ‘electorate’, his comments are a classic case of pot calling kettle ‘black’.

  5. Rabelais permalink*
    July 26, 2010 7:11 pm

    We are of one mind then on the issue of the Sector Skills Councils. I am polluted by one skills council in particular – Skillset. I have a blackthorn stake that I keep especially for the day that I can drive it into its black vampiric heart.

    Actually that day may not be long away. I’m going to one of their conferences in September. Keep an eye on the press; I may cause a scene.

  6. Charlieman permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:38 pm

    “But vocational courses require expensive equipment that needs updating to keep apace with industry standards.”

    This is sometimes true. But the majority of the time, it is better to teach using industry cast offs. Students have to learn that, in the real word (that expression again), they aren’t always going to be exposed to the latest and greatest. This experience is most likely to occur at the start of a vocational career unless a student is working for a blue chip company.

    Cast offs have the further benefit that they are usually simpler. If you are teaching thermodynamics, for example, you want to use engines and pumps that are very basic so that the fundamentals are most observable. You want something that is cheap to fix and can be monitored using simple instruments.

    The opposite rule applies to software, of course, but publishers understand how important it is to get their products on the curricula. A private purchase of a GIS package will cost you £2,000; an academic site licence often costs less than £10,000.

    You are spot on about the cost of teaching vocational subjects. It is still 20+ face to face hours per week in some; a second year engineering or medicine UG gets more face to face hours that year than an arts UG through the duration.

    On the primary points, I argue for less HE and more continuing education. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a cost saving measure. Worthwhile continuing education is very expensive; the last course I attended cost my university £1,000 and I was absent for a week. However, I was able to learn a vocational skill that has already changed. Hopefully, I have learned enough principles that the money was not wasted.

    Remember also that students who pursue a vocational degree more or less have to get a job in their vocation immediately after graduation. If they have been working in a different field for a couple of years, they will be passed over for job applicants with “more up to date” training. Ironically, a degree in Middle English ages more slowly than one in Computer Science.

    • Rabelais permalink*
      July 27, 2010 12:30 pm

      Welcome Charlieman,
      In my own field of media studies we use equipment that is industry ‘cast offs’, although we are always careful to describe it as ‘cutting edge’ in the gloss course brochures.

      That’s an interesting point about the shelf life of some degrees. I hadn’t thought of that.

  7. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 27, 2010 8:16 am


    Solid, coherent answers to my questions.

    But – and this is me musing, not a criticism of your answers – what shall we do with/provide for all those kids who won’t be going to tertiary education anymore?

  8. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 27, 2010 9:39 am

    P.S. – oh, and what about all those unemployed media studies lecturers?

  9. July 27, 2010 11:19 am

    Good question there, Charlie.

    The way things are going, we just have to wait a few years until students have a clear choice again: between an elite HE sector that will provide an expensive academic education for a smaller, more streamlined middle class; and a mass HE sector that is strictly vocational in curriculum, serving the practical and ideological needs of industry and capital.

    It’s obvious then where the majority of students will go. As for us lecturers, most of us will go the way of the thousands of public servants who face redundancy in the next couple of years – I’ve seen predictions of 20,000 job losses in the sector in the next 5 years, half of those lecturing posts. So it’s case of sign on the dole or reinvent ourselves if it’s not too late already. I don’t know about Rab but I’m going to write a trashy novel in between flipping burgers.

  10. Rabelais permalink*
    July 27, 2010 12:39 pm

    But what do we do with all those kids who don’t go on to tertairy education? Well, we could create jobes for them, or failing that, give them unemployment benefits or offer them opportunities in further education. In this respect I think Charlieman’s point about continuous education is an important one. Keep the door open for mature students and life-long learning.

    This is all very old fashioned, I know, and not at all in line with current government spending plans, but the alternative is to continue to encourage bewildered and reluctant 18 year olds into HE, when many of them have neither the interest nor aptitude, and then make them pay for the privilege.

    I think AA has it just about right. But I would add that we’re in the process of reinventing the polytech again. Of course, for marketing purposes no institution will want to call themselves a polytech – the university brand is much more attractive.

  11. Strategist permalink
    July 28, 2010 11:14 pm

    That really is actually a picture of Digby Jones.
    I once saw him deliver a speech and that is exactly what he looked like.

    At the time I remember thinking I had never heard a more useless, pig ignorant buffoon with nothing to say in my life.

    When G. Brown offered him a job in his “government of all the talents”, it really set the tone and showed that Brown was a fucking moron who was going to be completely crap, whatever the secret hopes of romantic Labour lefties.

  12. Rabelais permalink*
    July 29, 2010 7:34 am

    ‘I have never heard a more useless, pig ignorant buffoon with nothing to say in my life’

    We should send him that quote for the dust jacket of his inevitable biography.

  13. July 31, 2010 11:31 am

    That picture is fucking hilarious. Spat my sandwich all over my computer screen. And the idea of a ‘government of all the talents’ containing Digby (The Biggest Dog in the World) is possibly the most laughable aspect of Brown’s time as leader.

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