Academic knowledge for its own sake? Those days are over

HE must consider future workforce needs and develop a skills-based graduate workforce

It’s time for the HE sector to abandon the Oxbridge mindset and focus more on practical skills.

The pandemic has very clearly offered us all a chance to change not only the way we work but the way we deliver education. Having worked and developed careers in industry before moving into the academic sector, it is clear to me that HE sector has always lagged behind other sectors and been less agile in responding to the rapidly changing global skills and employability landscape.

Successive national administrations have done their part to remould the HE landscape since World War 2, improving accessibility and accountability. But without further additional change, universities may truly struggle to adequately prepare graduates for a post Covid-19 world. Indeed, recent debate has been more about the model of delivery and access, rather than the critical need to rethink the new skills needed for the recovery of industries and economies. Coupled with a grim realisation that the idea of “post-Covid” is itself mutating into “long-Covid”, the effect and impact on future workforce dynamics is going to be inherently complex. The sector, as well as the government, needs to be clear about which direction HE should be headed in. And it needs to act decisively in light of the implications of an ongoing pandemic.

Skills-based FE has never been – and perhaps never will be – the choice for middle class families in the UK

In July 2020, education secretary Gavin Williamson said the UK needed to prioritise skills and capacity for the recovery of productivity, innovation and competitiveness in an increasingly “war-like” post-Covid global economy. He proposed that the solution might well lie in the interface between FE and HE. Yet, the sector has instead been preoccupied with rethinking the tools and models of virtual blended education, rather than much-needed skills to rebuild the economy.  

Skills-based FE has never been – and perhaps never will be – the choice for middle class families in the UK. This is not a bad thing per se, but what is worrying is a mindset that continues to subdivide and segregate people based on socio-economic demographics: a division that has plagued the HE sector for the last five decades. But now we have a chance to do something about it. 

By embedding industry-focused skills development into the HE curriculum, there now exists a chance to rid the sector of the ‘implicit’ judgment of instruments such as league tables – which ignore, or at the very least restrict, diversity of academic and skills-based performance. Worse, they reinforce socio-economic inequalities – demonstrated by a certain over-reliance of the UK HE sector on an idealised image of an idyllic, Oxbridge-rooted education, one that is rooted solely in knowledge acquisition, and looks down with disdain on skills development. 

At least at undergraduate level, we need to focus on skills as a result of academic study, rather than academic knowledge for its own sake

Now is the time for middle and lower-tier universities to play their hand, and form a consensus to meaningfully address the development of skills-based graduate workforce that will undoubtedly be required in the short to medium-term future. This means offering even more experiential and applied learning programmes in key future growth areas such as AI, the green economy, diversity, equality and inclusion. At least at undergraduate level, we need to focus on skills as a result of academic study, rather than academic knowledge for its own sake. 

This might mean teaching students applied skills that are supported and driven by fundamental academic knowledge. For example, teaching engineering students to learn and use accounting and tax software. Teaching arts and humanities students the power of data analytics and project management to deliver their commissioned creative work. 

Universities need to begin to act now to address the status of skills, making skills and applied knowledge a more fundamental part of the curriculum – and be confident and proud about it. In this way they can not only make students more employable but can slowly begin to change the HE sector from within, eradicating attainment gaps, decolonising curricula and putting universities on a much firmer financial footing for the good, well into the future.

Professor Vishanth Weerakkody is dean of the faculty of management, law and social sciences, University of Bradford; he co-authored this piece with Professor Amir Sharif, associate dean; www.bradford.ac.uk

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