Three lines of production

February 7, 1997

Higher education has to equip individuals better for working life, and provide the people needed for the many demands of a modern economy.

But what will the future world of work be like? How good are employers at describing it, and the skills and attributes that will be needed to cope there? How consistent are the messages and how receptive are the academic audiences?

Can employers and academics work even closer at the national and regional levels?

Next Thursday, February 13, a conference organised by The Council for Industry and Higher Education, The Times Higher Education Supplement and London University's Institute of Education will discuss all these issues.

The centrepiece of the afternoon discussion will be a presentation by Lee Harvey of the University of Central England. He will tell the conference the results of the most comprehensive survey yet of companies' views of the skills they look for in graduates. There will be an opportunity to discuss the findings and all those attending will receive a copy of Professor Harvey's full report.

The conference will be held at the Institute of Education in London and starts at 10am. For registration contact Barbara Blake at the CIHE. Telephone 0171 468 2211, fax 0171 388 0914.

THERE ARE few iron laws in the social sciences. However, one prediction that has near cast-iron certainty is that as enrolments in higher education expand, its value in the labour market is subjected to more rigorous scrutiny. In simple quantitative terms it is inevitable that a smaller proportion of graduates will be absorbed in education itself, or elsewhere in the public sector.

The majority must find work in industry, commerce or private services. Several governments, of which Egypt was the most notorious, have tried to resist this iron law by guaranteeing every graduate a government job. The results are inevitably disastrous: explosive expansion of enrolments, overcrowded universities and low-quality graduates cluttering up government offices.

But the shift to mass higher education has qualitative as well as quantitative effects. Governments worry about value for taxpayers' money if graduates are unable to find suitable employment. Students are concerned because the assurance of personal social and economic advantage from a degree is diluted. But above all employers are confused because the old certainty about graduates being the cream of each generation can no longer be taken for granted.

International experience suggests that employers really want three separate product lines from higher education.

Above all they want research. This is the one they are prepared to pay for. More than Pounds 200 million a year in Britain, and more than that in Germany, where university research institutes have been a prominent feature ever since 19th- century university research helped lay the foundations of the chemical industry. In North America, western Europe and, more recently, Australasia and Japan, when employers are asked to show whether they put their money where their mouths are when they express support for higher education, it is invariably spending on research which tops the list. In the global village, universities and colleges that have little top quality research receive correspondingly little money from industry or commerce.

The second revealed preference of employers in their demands of universities is that they should cultivate the most able minds. Again money talks. The second biggest category of employer income into higher education in most countries is almost certainly sponsorship of students whom they see as potential high fliers, probably about Pounds 50 million in the United Kingdom.

Figures are confused because much sponsorship money goes to students themselves to help with living costs or to subsidise fees, but the relative position is clear.

Many national systems of higher education retain the selection function of higher education by stratifying their systems. The United States has both stratification - research universities, doctoral granting universities, four-year institutions and two-year colleges - and performance indicator based ratings which let both employers and students know exactly where any university stands. Japan has a similar stratified and ratings-based system, though reputation rather than performance indicators plays a bigger part in the determination of ratings.

In France the grandes ecoles, responsible for less than 5 per cent of total enrolments, but with a larger number of higher education students studying for the entrance examinations in the classes preparatoires, protect the interests of employers who want to ensure access to the best brains without too much effort on their part.

Germany, along with much of Northern Europe solves the problem in a different way. There is a binary policy with a well defined and well focused vocational sector: graduates of the Fachhochschulen receive the same qualifications as university graduates, but their lower standing is signalled by putting the letters FH after any formal statement of their qualifications.

The majority of German students attend universities with no recognised differentiation between them. However, it takes six to nine years to qualify and there are many drop-outs on the way, so tenacity and survival capacity, as well as high academic achievement, are the qualities known to be possessed by most German university graduates.

Useful skills are only third on the real employer wishlist. Whether these should be specific or general is a matter of debate in most countries. Certainly, employers tell researchers the attributes they are looking for, often dogmatically, and the words "transferable", "core", "communication", or their synonyms appear frequently.

But the hard cash evidence is that below the level of the highest fliers it is specific skills that employers are willing to pay for. Local industrial and commercial partnerships are a burgeoning feature of universities and colleges in many countries. But as these partnerships come to involve more and more small and medium-sized companies, employers' needs become more and more immediate and specific.

Small companies are not able to undertake the massive graduate training programmes of the great multinational conglomerates. The United States has by far the longest history of mass higher education and it has a specific educational route into almost every occupation. Increasingly this involves specialised study after the first degree. Many other countries are taking a similar route. The high prestige universities whose graduates can usually be sure of finding employment on the high-flier criterion can usually retain the luxury of a liberal curriculum. For the majority, employers look for specific competence first and general transferable skills second.

There is a fourth service universities are able to offer to employers and that is prestige. Association with a university is felt to be a privilege by many business people. The title of professor is highly prized, especially in Europe, and many company directors sport the title.

The offer of a visiting or part-time chair or fellowship helps to cement relations between universities and the world of work. In Britain along with several other countries the honorary degree is a much prized honour and in the US as well as in Britain the invitation to become an unpaid trustee or council member is usually accepted, even though it involves work which would be highly remunerated in industry or commerce. It is a mistake to think of universities needing always to respond passively.

Gareth Williams is head of the centre for higher education studies, Institute of Education.

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