Alison Wolf

April 4, 2003

The government wants higher education to learn from business - Jits first lesson should be stick to core functions.

In the excitement over the access regulator, another key theme of the recent white paper has been neglected: namely higher education and business. With the chancellor of the exchequer also enthused about "business-university collaboration", we ought to read the small print. If not, we will suffer the consequences of serious policy confusions.

Universities' relationship to business touches on both of higher education's central concerns: research and education (or "teaching"). On research, ministers share their Tory predecessors' touching faith in government bureaucracies: regional development agencies are going to "invest in innovation" with the enlarged higher education innovation fund, "galvanise" business and transform knowledge transfer. This remit flies in the face of what we know about how public agencies operate: but given the usual shelf-life of quangos, RDAs will probably be long gone before anyone knows if they succeeded.

The white paper also emphasises "skills for the workplace". Preparing students for the labour market is central to universities' role, but it also has been subject to very muddled thinking. Universities have always provided training for some careers. Law and medicine are quintessentially "vocational". But the degree-based part of such training does not produce expert practitioners - that comes only after a lengthy apprenticeship, for which no formal classes can substitute.

What applies to the professions applies equally elsewhere. The limitations of teaching vocational skills in a school setting have long been recognised in the craft trades. The environment has none of the pressures and few of the penalties or rewards of a genuine workplace, the equipment is constantly becoming outdated and the teachers are, by definition, divorced from up-to-date working practices. That is why the Germans have always viewed full-time vocational training schools as providing a second-best holding-pattern for those without apprenticeships.

General skills are just the same. Mathematics and information technology skills are increasingly valuable in the labour market, but research at the Institute of Education shows that they are useful when they are embedded in specific knowledge and experience related to a job in a firm. They do not function as bolt-ons. People do not become valuable to employers via free-standing training sessions on a software package. No new employee, however good his or her maths, can possibly interpret and analyse data usefully in advance of time on the job.

This might seem blindingly obvious. It is not. Instead, we seem to be in a real muddle about what is appropriate for education and what is appropriate for employers. The language of competence-based assessment, learning outcomes and quality audit encourages misrepresentation. Courses increasingly claim, in one short session, to deliver "mastery" of this skill, "acquisition" of that competence, "understanding" of these concepts.

Employers are encouraged to spell out exactly what they expect from universities, and the white paper undertakes to ensure this - even something as nebulous as "enterprise" or "working with others". Since when is "team working" something that universities can or should be concerned with? Teams in a workplace have a genuine common goal. Students, on the other hand, have individual ones, and rightly so: acquiring their own degrees, developing their own minds.

But the misunderstanding is not only one-way. Over the past 20 years, governments have consistently persuaded themselves that workplaces can be organised around education, whether this involves apprentice surgeons, apprentice hairdressers or apprentice engineers. This means detailed record-keeping, formal oversight by workplace assessors (that is, people with their own jobs to do), educational provision on site and work organised around learning and assessment schedules. They have been surprised when such efforts came to nothing. But job experience is job experience: not something that can be planned, timetabled and examined like a school or university class.

We should, by now, understand that educational institutions cannot produce completely "workplace-ready" employees any more than workplaces can take over education and examining. Alas, the white paper suggests otherwise. It trumpets the sector skills councils that will establish "close relationships between employersI and relevant faculties" as preparation for workforce entry, and it cites foundation degrees tailored for specific employers as a priority for growth.

Management thinkers emphasise that success comes from sticking to your "core functions". As the latest government to think business has a lot to teach higher education, perhaps ours could start with that lesson.

Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.

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