CBI task force calls for more 'business-friendly' degrees

Concern grows over industry interference in higher education, writes Hannah Fearn

September 25, 2008

Academic and student leaders have warned against the increasing influence of outside voices in shaping higher education policy.

Last week, the Confederation of British Industry announced the creation of a higher education task force to "explore what business wants from higher education... and how the sector should be funded". The move follows the announcement by Universities Secretary John Denham of a series of reports on the future of higher education by its "users", largely from the world of business.

The 19-strong CBI group, which met for the first time last week, represents a cross-section of industries but contains only three representatives from the higher education sector. The CBI's director of education policy, Susan Anderson, told Times Higher Education that the group had been formed because business had not always been clear about what it wanted from universities.

"We were conscious of the fact that we hadn't actually set out a business vision about what we want, what we need and how we're going to work better with universities," she said. "Education and skills is one of the top priorities. For us to be able to articulate what business wants is very important. It's what we can do to help universities."

At the launch, the CBI suggested that there was an oversupply of graduates, with 10.1 million of them in Britain chasing 9 million graduate-level jobs, according to CBI figures. The confederation also urged universities to do more to ensure that graduates had the right skills for business.

One member of the group, Melfort Campbell, chief executive of Imes Group, said universities should provide "more graduates with degrees relevant to our business". "Industry needs to be clear on which degree subjects are considered valuable... (and) help students who are currently unsure about the value of a degree."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The UCU does not believe that business should be allowed to dictate the direction universities or funding should be taking. We need to trust people who have spent their lives working in education and use their vast and invaluable experience and insight."

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We are very concerned that an unrepresentative group of super-rich business leaders has crept together to call for cuts in student numbers."

Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), said the CBI task force should adopt a collaborative approach "rather than one where businesses appear to be telling universities what they want them to deliver".

The chair of the CBI group, Centrica's chief executive Sam Laidlaw, has joined the CIHE. Mr Laidlaw said the issue of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills would be a critical debate for the task force.

Graham Love, chief executive of QinetiQ and another member of the task force, said: "STEM skills are vital to our commercial success. Both industry and Government have key roles to play in inspiring our next generation of scientists and engineers, and this is a key issue that the task force will address."

The task force will publish recommendations in June 2009.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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