Making education work

What Business Wants from Higher Education
December 11, 1998

This is a curious volume written in textbook style with summaries at the end of each chapter along with questions that could well be used for examination purposes. But who are the students? I can only imagine that they are university teachers in American universities and colleges because the authors are American and the book is published under the auspices of the American Council on Education. However, I doubt that the courses for which it appears to have been written are much in evidence in Britain, so the only likely market would seem to be institutional libraries. Some may wish to give it shelf space, but with only occasional reference to British studies and scant reference to other European higher education systems, the focus is overwhelmingly on the United States, and I suspect there will be few takers.

The text is divided into four parts: part one, "Life as we know it", presents the case, in businesses transforming themselves from rigid hierarchies into flexible organisations, for more highly skilled and versatile workers; part two, "Changes to come", describes the changes that shifts in (largely US) demographics, technologies and globalisation will continue to have in postindustrial societies; part three, "What we will need", discusses the implications of all of this for the kinds of preparation that students will require for what is described as "the ambiguous, constantly evolving workplace of tomorrow"; and part three, "Philosophies guiding change", is a discussion of the ways in which higher education institutions that accept the premises of the first three parts can align themselves so to produce the kinds of learning environment required by businesses that also accept those premises.

The book is a sustained plea for changes in the traditional assumptions underlying the US higher-education system, from one where universities consider it their task to select talented school leavers and teach them, to one where the task is to enable all to develop their talents, and where the function of the faculty is to enable learning to take place. Students are to be treated as customers and trained to work well in teams and networked groups rather than to be encouraged to concentrate only on fulfilling their individual aspirations.

Much of this argument strikes a chord with similar debates that have been started by bodies such as the Council for Industry and Higher Education in Britain. Personally I agree with much of what the authors say and suspect that for many US institutions the changes that are proposed will stimulate a fruitful debate. It is also true that there are many institutions in Britain where such a debate might also be fruitful, such as the large provincial universities where the conflict between the aspirations of the faculty for research excellence and the desires of the students and their parents for a greater concentration on relevant teaching are becoming acute. In these circumstances, this book could stimulate useful discourse, but for most of the British system, I doubt whether eavesdropping on what is presented as a largely US problem will be of much interest.

John Ashworth is chairman, board of the British Library, and former director, London School of Economics.

What Business Wants from Higher Education

Author - Diane G. Oblinger and Anne-Lee Verville
ISBN - 1 57356 206 8
Publisher - American Council on Education/Oryx Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 187

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