Mission impossible

Higher Education and Corporate Realities:
April 28, 1995

Working in a new university, I am inevitably depressed by this book. Its grim conclusion is that all the reforms we have been pioneering, from greater access for disadvantaged groups to novelties such as profiling, are fatuous in the face of employers' real recruitment criteria and the established hierarchies of British universities.

This does not for a moment make the book less valuable. On the contrary, given the "missions" of so many ex-polytechnics, it is essential reading for all their vice-chancellors who ought also to be required to relate its findings to their "strategic" thinking.

One of the authors, Richard Scase, the most eminent of organisational sociologists, knows a very great deal about what industry wants from higher education, the other, Phillip Brown, is an up-and-coming education researcher who genuinely talks to students about what they are getting from the universities. Together they have conducted an extensive survey of company recruiters that enables them to address, in an empirically informed way, the vexed relations between higher education and the corporate sector.

Brown and Scase acknowledge that the breakneck expansion of universities has increased opportunities for many once-excluded groups, and that this has frequently been greeted in celebratory style as the democratisation of fusty elitist institutions. The chief rationale for this has been that the economy requires a better educated workforce. We are all familiar with descriptions of a future that is more professionalised and knowledge-intensive, requiring larger numbers of graduates. And undoubtedly prospective students have responded to this, aspiring towards what the vast majority of graduates used to achieve, a good job with career prospects. At the same time it has been generally acknowledged that graduates need more than technical abilities to do well after university, and so the ex-polytechnics in particular have been pressing for the introduction of "transferable skills" (communications, team work, leadership etc) into the curriculum and even for their incorporation into academic courses. A few have even gone so far as to introduce "profiling", by which graduates leave university with a detailed "personality package" attached to their degree certificates. In this way, or so runs the conventional argument, the graduates will be advantageously equipped to meet the requirements of a dynamic employment situation, better equipped even than their competitors from the established (and out-of-touch) universities.

The difficulty is, as Brown and Scase are fully aware, that during the present period of oversupply of graduates, employers can pick and choose whomsoever they want. Employers agree with the universities that technical competencies are insufficient for today's "adaptive" corporation, but what they regard as transferable skills turn out to be, in all essentials, subjective characteristics already found in abundance among privileged graduates. Bluntly speaking, recruiters do want the "charismatic personality" for their future management, but they can recruit him or her from traditional elite universities, especially the ancient ones. These institutions do not bother to teach transferable skills formally, since their students have them aplenty from their family backgrounds and from the informal networks they develop in college. Indeed the very fact that the ex-polytechnics now teach these skills is evidence to prospective employers that their students are not very good material to begin with.

In short, Brown and Scase conclude, we are witnessing the permeation throughout employers' recruitment practices of what has long taken place at the highest levels of corporations. The "high-flyers" among graduates were always scrutinised for appropriate personal qualities that made them "executive material"; and "judgement", "leadership" and "independence of thought" were always to be found at Corpus Christi or Magdalen. The difference is that today's recruiters are applying this approach in the recruitment of all their graduates.

This is quite outrageous. It means that working-class and ethnic-minority students who have managed, often in adverse circumstances, to gain entry to higher education, and whose academic qualifications would once have been sufficient to get them a secure professional job (if not to reach the very top), now cannot even get on the career ladder. Having struggled to get into university, they are now expected to acquire a personality package that appeals to employers, without the benefit of parental investment in schools, theatre and museum visits, foreign travel and the like.

Brown and Scase take a jaundiced view of talk about transferable skills, regarding it as rhetoric that has entered universities largely through the Enterprise initiative. To be sure, we all feel that we know what these skills are, and even accept that they are valuable. But measuring them is another matter altogether. Essentially employers define the skills as those belonging to people like themselves - as, I suspect, do the rest of us. As our authors scathingly observe, "at rock bottom, the real skills for employment presented as 'personable and transferable' involve the exhibition of middle-class cultural capital".

Furthermore, it is clear from the book that the public, academe, employers and students themselves adhere to a hierarchy of universities, with the new universities at the bottom: the more elite the university, the better the chance for the graduating student to get a job. Brown and Scase demonstrate that employers see the status of a university, the quality of its degree and the personal skills of its graduates as interlinked. Hardly surprisingly, middle-class parents are prepared to invest very heavily in education for their offspring, something which results in their disproportionate access to the most elite universities. Consonant with this, the elite universities will soon charge top-up fees for tuition, thereby reinforcing the position of the already privileged.

The disillusion of former students with all this is clear too. They acknowledge that higher education has equipped them with "confidence", "oralcy" and such like (which those from middle-class homes did not find to be a hurdle, since they already had them, while the working-class kids found them daunting to acquire). But the overwhelming majority had anticipated that a degree would set them on a professional or managerial career path. In reality they have found that a changed corporate sector is not able to guarantee careers, except perhaps for a tiny group coming almost exclusively from the top universities and schools. Instead corporations require from graduates above all flexibility, for which most students are ill-prepared and for which they must be able to produce self-generated portfolios of experience and expertise. Overall Brown and Scase find graduates after university to be a sorry group locked into temporary, insecure and unsatisfying jobs, who painfully appreciate that a degree does not buy what it once did. Of course there is a much smaller exceptional group which has welcomed this flexible future, who have the market power and social skills to do well whatever happens. It consists - you've guessed it - of the young go-getters from Oxbridge.

Higher Education and Corporate Realities is a short lucid book with a profound message for everyone working in higher education. Those who have resisted the current changes within universities have often been told that they must not defend traditional university ways, they must adapt to "what industry really needs". Well here is a study that takes industry's requirement seriously. And it reveals that many of our students are being sold short. They have been promised that a degree will bring better and more satisfying work, provided it is supplemented with appropriate personal skills. But in fact employers are demanding from those they recruit qualities that are largely expressions of middle-class lifestyles. How can those of us in the new universities read this book and then face our students with a clear conscience?

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Higher Education and Corporate Realities:: Class, Culture and the Decline of Graduate Careers

Author - Phillip Brown and Richard Scase
ISBN - 1 85728 103 9 and 104 7
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 197pp

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