What does business want from higher education? Work-ready graduates, it appears. Why waste money on training if universities can do it for you?
Hard on the heels of the announcement by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, of a series of reviews of the future of higher education incorporating views from outside the sector, the Confederation of British Industry last week weighed in with its task force to "explore what business wants from higher education" (page 14). "We were conscious that we hadn't actually set out a business vision of what we want, what we need," said Susan Anderson, the CBI director of education policy.
One of Denham's stated priorities this year was "to accelerate progress towards a new relationship between employers and higher education". The word "relationship" implies a respectful and equal two-way process. At present, it just seems to be business telling universities "what they want them to deliver", as Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, points out. Even the nascent CBI task force contains only three higher education members.
The Leitch agenda is, of course, important. The nation needs more people with higher-level skills (the target is 40 per cent of adults with degree-level qualifications by 2020).
Some universities, such as Hertfordshire and Manchester Metropolitan, have already made it their mission to work with employers to provide the type of graduates that they require. It is entirely right that universities differentiate themselves in this way. Resources are scarce and not all institutions can provide the blue-skies research needed by industry. And nor should they try. What they can and do provide is the highly skilled workforce needed in these industries.
But even these so-called business-facing institutions have encountered ignorance from the business community. According to John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, "There's a real lack of understanding on the part of employers, and often their criticism is based on a 1970s model of higher education because that is their model of higher education."
Universities today are different places from those of the 1970s. Much has changed. If business needs a guide to the many and varied things that universities do, it could do worse than read the impressive roll-call of shortlisted entries for this year's Times Higher Education Awards in this issue (pages 30-47).
Employers need to understand the importance of a university education and how it differs from training. They have to become university facing, as a recent study from the University of Hertfordshire pointed out.
Even non-vocational degrees bring excellent critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. Elsewhere in this issue (page 26), Rudi Bogni, an enlightened corporate director, is clear about the difference between education and training. For him, the choice between employing a "narrow-minded MBA and a broad-minded, intellectually curious graduate in music" is easy: he will always choose the latter. The musician, he explains, could be trained to be a smart banker, but the MBA who thought he had learnt everything "could no longer be stimulated or moulded into someone who stops having doubts".
For anyone who still cannot distinguish between education and training, perhaps the explanation to the House of Lords by Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, this summer will help. "If my daughters came home from school and told me that they had been to sex-education classes, I would be comfortable; if they said they had been to sex training and skills classes, I would not," he said.