Leader: One step beyond the pale

The government now wants even postgraduate education to serve industry by inculcating business awareness and skills training

April 8, 2010

The wisdom of naming a report on postgraduate education after a Madness track is a little unclear, but the content of One Step Beyond: Making the Most of Postgraduate Education could be summed up, in a rough approximation of Prince Buster's famous opening words, as "Don't do that, do this".

Unsurprisingly, a report commissioned by our very own prince at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills helpfully concludes that postgraduate provision should be tailored to deliver skills to business. It says employers expect postgraduates to have skills that go beyond a narrow area of study, and include "business awareness" (whatever that is).

And if that weren't enough, the report says that to "maximise economic performance ... we need to ensure that we supply the right skills" - presumably close relatives of the fuzzy "right attitude" employers now demand from graduates - and asks the Higher Education Funding Council for England, among others, to do more to determine what employers require.

Nobody would deny that one of the main reasons anyone undertakes a postgraduate degree is to improve their career prospects, especially in a downturn, but isn't it time business laid its cards on the table? What exactly does it want? Why should organisations such as Hefce be tasked with finding out? If we're going to turn universities upside down to deliver something different, let's at least be specific about what they are being asked to provide. Woolly terms such as "business awareness" and "right skills" simply will not do.

Furthermore, is it necessary to tie postgraduate education so closely to the demands of UK business and, perhaps more importantly, is it prudent to do so?

According to a recent report by the British Library and the Higher Education Policy Institute, the postgraduate sector has increased by 12 per cent since 2002-03, with the biggest growth in master's degrees (up per cent), the subject of our cover story. But the big driver of this expansion has not come from the UK. Half of our master's students and 44 per cent of our PhD students now hail from abroad. Homegrown postgraduate student numbers have risen by only 3 per cent during this time.

Yes, our economy will employ many of these overseas students, but others will return home or go elsewhere. What do they want from a UK postgraduate education: a deep knowledge and understanding of their subject that they can take with them wherever they go or, in the report's words, "a range of skills that go beyond the discipline that they have studied", including some parochial and nebulous "business awareness" nonsense? No problem. The government's report calls on universities to ensure that "transferable skills training" is embedded in all postgraduate research programmes. The ball, it seems, is back in higher education's court.

All this, of course, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Bullied by business, run like a commercial concern but lumbered with public sector constraints, pushed and pulled in all directions with ever-increasing demands to prove the worth of what it does, in an environment where process is valued over innovation and imagination, the university is slowly having its mission diluted to the point where it is in danger of losing the very thing that makes it special: its USP.

Welcome to the House of Fun.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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