Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mandelson - universities 'are not factories for producing workers'

When Lord Mandelson made his first major speech on the topic of higher education at Birkbeck University on Monday, commentary understandably focused on hints that the limit on the cap on the level of tuition fees English universities can charge might be raised. Whilst the UCU suggested higher fees would be less popular than the poll tax, The Herald asked what such a move might mean for Scotland and reported the Scottish Government's continued line against fees.

Away from the headlines and in the context of the economic downturn, Mandelson said some interesting things about the role of Universities in relation to jobs and the economy:
I need to be clear that I do not believe that the function of a university is limited to – or even primarily about - economic outcomes. They are not factories for producing workers. Defining the skills that directly underwrite many skilled jobs in the UK is not the same as defining useful and necessary knowledge.
Despite his other responsibility - for business - he chose to emphasise this partial disconnect between universities and private sector employers and look for the positive within this. He went on to say:

The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from classics to quantum physics is a compelling one.

I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself. Because historical awareness and critical thinking are part of the inventory of a rounded human being.

But also because character and economic competitiveness are actually rather hard to disentangle. If the modern economy is built on specialisms, it is also built on a raft of soft skills such as intellectual confidence, logical thinking, communication and working and collaborating in teams.

This is a considerably more subtle and more complex view of graduates' role in supporting economic growth than some others have attempted. It is not only more credible than the notion that all a degree should provide is a set of specialist skills which three, four, or five years later exactly match an employer's list of expectations, it is also a canny political move. It seems Mandelson is seeking to identify a narrative which in which business and higher education can perhaps agree more fully on the nature of their relationship than has necessarily always been the case hitherto. If by doing so he can avoid conflict between two potentially adversarial elements of of his sprawling ministerial portfolio, he will strengthen his already considerable departmental hand in the face of coming spending cuts.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the narrative about students, graduates and jobs has been less theoretical and struck a more practical note. The discussion moved on from recent positive news that students graduating from Scottish universities last year had more success finding jobs than their counterparts exiting English institutions. The focus instead turned to current students and to an NUS Scotland survey suggesting a lack of vacation employment opportunities and the Union's concern about the potential impact on indebtedness and, as a consequence, drop-out rates.
At the weekend The Observer had outlined some alternatives this year's graduates might turn to whilst the job market remains poor and the Westminster government announced more substantive help in an effort to address potentially significant levels of unemployment amongst young people, including recent graduates. Time and the publiation of employment statistics will tell but, at present, it seems even if universities were to be regarded as 'factories for producing workers' the demand for such workers may be limited in the short term.

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