How to turn pain into gain

Universities must convince the public and policymakers that they are key to improving the public sector workforce

May 15, 2014

Scandals involving the abuse of patients and the elderly, and the failure of the authorities to protect vulnerable children, have begun to feel disturbingly familiar in recent years.

Each new revelation has been met with outrage – that Baby P was let down, that residents of Winterbourne View care home were mistreated or that public trust in Stafford Hospital was violated.

Throw in Plebgate and the attempt by Michael Gove, the education secretary, to paint educators as a rabid left-wing “blob”, and there is a decidedly beleaguered feel to the public sector professions.

Running in parallel to this, although not directly linked, is growing pressure on the status and focus of training in these fields, and in our cover feature we examine the combination of policy changes, funding issues, student demand and regulatory arrangements that are putting universities’ role at risk.

If public trust in these professions has been dented, then trust in the training that has underpinned them may also be wearing a bit thin

Whether it’s moving the focus of initial teacher training into schools or the threat to the unit of resource for NHS-funded students, the financial challenges for universities are huge.

But are such shifts also at odds with providing the workforce we need?

Universities may not be the place to train all staff for all lines of work. There’s no great clamour for every rookie police officer to be recruited in the graduate milk round, for example.

For other professions, though, there’s a strong feeling in the sector that shifting training away from higher education risks damaging the standards, integrity and prestige of vital public services, and fundamentally – and perhaps wilfully – misunderstands the value of a degree-level education.

The issue is due to be discussed at Universities UK’s members’ meeting this week, and Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (which has 2,500 nursing students – more than any other institution), described the attitude of policymakers as “deeply worrying”.

“It fails to recognise the complexity of the roles and how these roles will change,” he said. “It fails to understand or recognise that we need to create a workforce that will be capable of developing and delivering innovative approaches to care and education as society’s needs change.”

One problem for universities is that if public trust in these professions has been dented, then trust in the training that has underpinned them may also be wearing a bit thin.

West believes that rather than resisting change full stop, universities should push for closer working relationships with employers as well as with the public, whom these workers go on to serve.

However, a return to basic “on the job” training would be misguided: the ability to learn and adapt throughout one’s working life is vital in these professions, which present their workforce with some of the most complex and challenging situations imaginable.

Get it right, and there is also a broader argument for universities to win here.

Nurses, teachers and social workers are firmly within the sphere of interest for the likes of the Daily Mail, making this a populist point for universities to campaign on.

Training the public workforce the country needs: how’s that for impact?

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