Bottled skills with sell-by dates

April 28, 2000

Ivor Crewe, chair of the foundation-degree group of the Department for Education and Employment, says the degrees "respond to employers' needs", such as "technical and professional skills", (Letters, THES, April 21).

On the following page Frances Cairncross reports London School of Economics' findings that 20 to 30 per cent of the workforce is over-educated. Is it the aim of foundation degrees to arm students with only enough knowledge that they can do a particular job and nothing more? It used to be an employer's job to train staff in specifics and the education system's job to educate.

Given the time it takes to devise a learning programme, compared with the speed of change in "the real world", is it not time people stopped trying to bottle skills with a "sell-by" date and took a more generic approach?

Vocational education will always be catching up with industry, and employers will always complain their new recruits have out-of-date skills.

Badly conceived vocational education, which defines its objectives by taking a snapshot of a particular industry's needs, risks failing students and employers. Given the choice between trained monkeys and educated individuals with the "reliance, creativity, innovative ability and good judgement" that Cairncross says employers should really seek in staff, I cannot see too many people opting for the monkeys. I am not suggesting that foundation degrees or vocational education are bad things. But I am concerned that the discussion seems to be moving towards a general criticism of more academic approaches, as though learning for learning's sake is a waste of time or money.

The foundation degree offers a real chance to include those who might not normally pursue further or higher education. But if it simply becomes a byword for job training, it is going to fail.

No one seems to have addressed what students need. Perhaps if asked they might say they want an education that allows them to choose from a variety of jobs and careers, provides the skills to continue their learning throughout their lives and pursue interests not directly related to their job.

Jonathan Baldwin Lecturer Reading College and School of Arts and Design

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