Those of us working in the university sector are living through a period of change. Yet in many ways, this change is a result of the sector’s success. A university education develops students’ knowledge and skills, supports entry into the professions and employment, and encourages social mobility. The freeing of student numbers, coupled with loans available for all, makes this possible for everyone for the first time in history. This is a compliment to the success of the sector but the flip side comes in the increased cost to students and the subsequent re-forging of the relationship between the university and the student to ensure “value for money”. I have been thinking about these trends in recent weeks. What does “value for money” mean in the modern context?
The main reason for most students to go to university is to have a good career – there are other important reasons but that is at the main one. Universities promote this as an outcome in their marketing, pointing to data showing a university degree greatly increases one’s chances of professional success. The government uses this argument to justify the loans system and persuade students to view university as an investment. Anecdotally, most students that I talk to link value for money to their ability to get a job after they graduate.
Yet the latest CBI employer satisfaction survey found that 40% of UK employers were not satisfied with their graduate hires’ business and customer awareness, while almost a third were dissatisfied with their behaviour and resilience in the workplace. The OECD has found the link between degree design and industry needs to be especially weak in the UK. And the most recent HEPI Student Satisfaction Survey found that just 35% of students felt that their university course offered them value for money.
It strikes me that a shift in emphasis in the learning experience is really needed. If most of us continue to promote improved employment chances as an outcome of university, we need to do our best to deliver on that. It is hypocritical to blame government policy for forcing us into a consumer relationship when we use those very arguments to attract students. Given the most important person for the student is their teacher, we need to reconsider the role of the academic and what should count as relevant “expertise” in the modern university.
‘Students, businesses and academics themselves would benefit from a sector with more exposure to the world of work.’
The traditional impression of a university lecturer is that of a lofty professor imparting expert theory and knowledge to students. The university is presented as a separate community from the “real world”, unsullied by questions of commerciality, and maintaining its objectivity as it studies the world through a theoretical lens. Research is central to this view of a university, and to carry out properly independent research such separation from business interests is no doubt essential. In that world academic inquiry is more important than vocational skills and theory is more important than practice. One can easily see why a research profile is core to the academic in that idea of a university, but surely the changes within the higher education sector necessitate a shift in that core profile.
For me, this shift should be around expertise in the commercial world rather than separation from it. Most students that I talk to link value for money to their ability to get a job after they graduate.Is it not imperative to significantly increase the number of lecturers who have real-world employment experience and connectivity? If we want students to successfully transition into employment, to understand how their subjects and related skills are used and developed in the outside world, and to navigate the complexities of an increasingly global workforce, shouldn’t we bring that expertise into the classroom? Shouldn’t that be core to the syllabus rather than an extra curricula activity located in some remote careers centre? Instead of looking primarily at research profiles in appointing staff, we could look at commercial profiles, ensuring cutting edge expertise. We could support lecturers to design projects and secondments with businesses, just as we do with research projects, and to engage externally directly with employers. It doesn’t mean we have to become blindly obedient to the needs of corporates. We can be critical, analytical, and strengthen our understanding with research and data. But we do need to know what we are talking about. We need to ensure that we develop as communities of experts in the employability we claim we are selling.
‘The latest CBI employer satisfaction survey found that 40% of UK employers were not satisfied with their graduate hires’ business and customer awareness.’
At Pearson College London we have been fascinated by the link between academia and employers since our inception. While the value of having lecturers with one foot in academia and the other in industry is clear, such a step change is not easy to deliver. We are on a steep learning curve, and know we have much to learn from other institutions, students and employers. But already all of our degrees are designed with both academics and employers, we hold numerous industry days and workshops alongside more traditional lectures and seminars, we host a student selected start-up that operates as an authentic learning resource for students, and this year we will be piloting a range of industry secondments. We do not believe that academic study and “skills” should be separate, but closely intertwined, and that students benefit intellectually and professionally from an integrated approach. One thing we have learned is that employers are very willing to contribute to HE, and can be seen as a rich and diverse learning resource for universities.
The fact is that nearly all graduates will go on to be employed in businesses. Only a tiny percentage will go on to become academic researchers. Most institutions promise, explicitly or implicitly, that the former will be alright as long term studies show graduates generally do well. But we all know there are increasing numbers of graduates both in the UK and globally, and that when it comes to investments past performance is not necessarily an indication of future performance. We need to do all we can to help ensure it continues to be true. We need to develop a new area of expertise. And surely there is no sector that knows better how to become experts than universities.
The higher education sector is changing, and academia can help shape that change. Students, businesses and academics themselves would benefit from a sector with more exposure to the world of work. It won’t be easy but it is fascinating and we all have a responsibility to make this happen and ensure that engagement with universities continues to be a positive experience for students.
Roxanne Stockwell is Principal of Pearson College London, the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.