Bottom line: universities are still not completely engaged

May 21, 2009

Hannah Fearn reports on the hopes and fears raised at Times Higher's Employer Engagement conference

"They face each other across the divide rather like young lovers, with a mixture of fascination and disgust."

This was how Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, described the relationship between universities and business at Times Higher Education's Employer Engagement conference last week.

Reflecting on the topic for debate - "how far should universities go to meet the needs of employers" - he expressed the tensions inherent in the Government's drive to increase the contribution that UK universities make to the economy.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, criticised the way business priorities were influencing university behaviour.

"There has never been a single model of a university, but what's different now is the degree of commercial engagement. This is affecting the research agenda of American universities, and the fear is that it may affect it here," he said.

He added that universities were losing sight of their wider social role. "Am I scaremongering?" he asked. "I don't think so."

Peter John, vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, said there was "a kernel of truth" in Professor Brown's comments.

"It reflects a wide debate about what the function of higher education should be," he said. His view is that universities should be about "securing economic prosperity and also the public good".

"The public good seems to be sometimes at odds with the economic regeneration possibilities. That has led to some ... concerns," Professor John added.

Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, said the tone of the discussion "depressed" him. He said that although employer engagement was central to Anglia Ruskin's strategy, it did "not mean we are a mono-focused institution".

"Universities by definition are pluralistic enterprises, so we have an academic community that contains people as far away from wishing to respond to the needs of employers as you can imagine, and we also have those who are dedicated to it," he said.

David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, spelt out Hefce's policy to ensure that an additional 35,000 higher education entrants are co-funded by employers by 2011.

But Barbara Stephens, director of The Open University in London, questioned whether employers were committed to funding staff study. She said many students would not tell employers they were studying outside work.

"They believe employers will see the improvement in their own skills as part of an exit strategy," she said.

Free industry-backed courses from QAA's scrutiny, says V-c

Higher education courses delivered in collaboration with employers should not be assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency, a vice-chancellor has argued.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education Employer Engagement conference, Madeleine Atkins, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, said universities should "stop believing there is only one name in this game".

"If we could have some choice about quality assurance assessors, that would go far," she said. "Some of the workplace testing is much more rigorous."

But Brad Coales, director of employer engagement at London South Bank University, said that universities often cited the demands of the QAA to back out of delivering courses developed with the private sector.

"The QAA scrutinises how we abide by our own rules. Sometimes people use that as an excuse," he said.

Wendy Stubbs, assistant director of the QAA, said that the agency was increasingly offering accreditation of "bite-size" employer-based courses, but that calling them "training" could undermine the role of universities and the standard of higher education being delivered.

"Our terminology is not giving them a great deal of support," she said.

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