Demeaning universities is a dangerous game

Downplaying the vital role that universities play in encouraging creativity could endanger the main engine of economic growth, say Luca Cacciolatti and Soo Hee Lee

September 24, 2017
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Providing high-level technical skills are important but the UK's economic prosperity is more reliant on fostering innnovation, argue Luca Cacciolatti and Soo Hee Lee

Few would now dispute the observation of the economist Joseph Schumpeter that innovation is the key to creating national wealth.

For Schumpeter, it all relied on entrepreneurship because entrepreneurs’ creativity and action are both necessary for new products and new forms of industrial organisation. But the huge technological progress that has occurred since he made his remarks in 1942 also makes technical skills very important, especially in the case of scientific and technological innovation.

Getting the balance right is very hard. In the UK, the government has pushed for innovation and entrepreneurship, but public opinion has often criticised graduates’ shortage of skills. Therefore, the government has more recently been calling for improvement in skills education, emphasising presentation and communication skills and general business knowledge. But this emphasis can come at the expense of improving technical and problem-solving abilities.

Of course, you could easily argue that having an uncritical and uncreative, but highly skilled, workforce is not such a bad thing to have: not everyone needs to be an innovator. But even if that were true, the UK isn’t achieving that either. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2014, only a quarter of graduates reaching the highest levels of literacy, with numeracy scores also lagging well behind top-performing nations. And British firms often lament their recruits’ relative paucity of technical knowledge.

There is another problem, too. Oversupply of skilled graduates may lead to higher unemployment because of increased job competition, or a qualifications arms race that leads to lots of overqualified people doing relatively menial jobs. Upskilling also leaves workers without degrees in a difficult position, as many jobs are now accessible only with a degree.

The solution proposed by some politicians is to prepare graduates for specific jobs. Degree apprenticeships, in which indentured 18-year-olds are backed by an employer sponsoring a student’s degree, lead to proficiency in one field, such as accountancy or engineering. This is likely to encourage the fragmentation of degree programmes and, due to rapid technological changes and global market uncertainty, no one can ensure that the jobs that graduates prepare for now will survive in the future.

The problem is exacerbated by the upcoming fourth industrial revolution, in which increased human-machine interaction will require hybridisation of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills (which current graduates, generalists by nature, do not possess). In this situation, the skills preparation for specific jobs may be prone to obsolescence with increased technical complexity and occupational change.

The solution for future skills demand does not lie in prioritising employability skills (although this is useful in the short term for low-skilled job creation), nor in pushing universities towards vocational courses preparing for specific jobs that may disappear or become hybridised by the time that students graduate. The answer is to be found in providing graduates with a mix of fundamental technical skills applicable to different industrial domains and fostering critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Technical skills could be enhanced by practical activities or placements, but they have to be acquired primarily through academic rigour of studying different disciplines which will help to stimulate creativity.

Students need to acquire a set of cognitive aptitudes, such as the ability to analyse complex situations and perform logical tasks. For instance, a chemist needs to know not just how to design and implement experiments, but also how to analyse the results. Exposing science students to the humanities (and vice versa) can also bolster creativity – especially given hybrid roles in newly emerging occupations, such as data scientists, consumer insight managers and digital media marketers.

The present tendency to demean the role of universities in fostering creativity and critical thinking will only contribute to undermine innovation.

Luca Cacciolatti is senior lecturer in marketing at Westminster Business School and Soo Hee Lee is professor in organisation studies at Kent Business School.

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