Demanding and confused

February 2, 1996

In societies where labour is highly mobile employers will always be reluctant to invest in training - and Britain is a classic case. Yet training - and training at high intellectual levels for today's knowledge-based occupations - has never been more necessary. The upshot is that employers spend much time and energy trying to cajole or bully others into doing for them the education and training they require.

At university level this takes the form of demanding that courses inculcate all kinds of "skills". For the past ten years or so, they have been pressuring universities - and getting the Government to pressure them too - to turn out graduates who are not just steeped in Shakespeare or particle physics, but also versed in the vagaries of work.

Nothing wrong in turning out graduates capable of earning a living and competent in the occupations they profess to practise but employers are demanding more than that. They want correct attitudes too. And they do not want to foot the bill. Furthermore their demands are muddled.

Do they for instance want particular skills and if so what skills? The CBI talks of "core skills", listing things like communication, numeracy and information technology. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, representing the 300 leading blue-chip companies, talks of "enabling skills", highlighting self-promotion, networking and "coping with uncertainty". This week, Industry in Education has called for the term "core skills" to be scrapped and replaced by "employability qualities", vaguely pointing to diligence, proactivity and "attitude towards work" (page 5).

Nor is the message clear about the qualifications they value. On the one hand, big business still beats a path to the olden gates of Oxbridge colleges, offering their graduates "golden hellos", even though the vocational elements in the traditional courses are negligible or non-existent. On the other hand, they demand that university curricula be altered in ways unclear and inconsistent.

One minute, the cry is for skills to be integrated into degree courses, and so the Government sponsors the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative. The next minute, the cry is for post-degree Mensa-style selection exams, and so a handful of universities pilot these so-called "nous" tests. And now, Industry in Education is calling for short degree-standard vocational courses to complement degree courses and to give single honours programmes a sandwich-course feel.

The Government has been eager to fall in with employers' demands, but at the last CBI conference there were signs that even their patience was wearing thin. Gillian Shephard, with her new responsibility both for education and employment, and her stated determination to make sure the education service was useful to the economy, pleaded with them then to decide what they wanted. That was last November. Industry in Education's recommendations suggest that since then the confusion has only been further confounded.

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