Don't give up the day job to help them secure day jobs

Scholar bemoans impact of employability agenda on academic standards. Matthew Reisz reports

October 11, 2012

The focus on student satisfaction, graduate employability and even the widening-participation agenda are doing far more than fee increases to turn students into consumers and undermine the true purpose of the university.

That is the central claim of a forthcoming book, Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can't Be Bought, by Joanna Williams, lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent.

Dr Williams - who will be discussing her views at the Barbican in London later this month at the Institute of Ideas' Battle of Ideas Festival - said that during her own English degree, it was immersion in the subject that had made her "employable, and a different person".

"That transformed me and gave me confidence, the intellectual struggle of having to confront challenging new concepts and coming out the other end having mastered that body of knowledge," she said.

But today, she said, the stress on satisfaction and employability meant that academics were not pushing students hard enough intellectually.

"Students are likely to be unhappy if you ask them to read two books before next week, and happier if it's one journal article you've already photocopied for them. Whether they will learn as much is another matter," she said.

Although she applauded optional workshops in employability skills, Dr Williams said that she had no time for "specialised academics such as philosophers trying to teach employability skills".

She added: "They'd be much better sticking to the day job. That's where their strengths lie. The students get poor philosophy and poor employability because they are being taught by the wrong people."

Dr Williams was also unhappy that "an almost non-existent youth labour market makes university virtually the only game in town. Going to university should be a positive choice for school-leavers rather than something they do because they are on a treadmill and it's expected of them."

She acknowledged the existence of "real problems of social inequality and lack of social mobility", although she questioned whether it is "the job of universities to solve these problems".

At the end of her book, Dr Williams proposes that we "stop seeing university admission as either an entitlement or as a rite of passage for all youngsters". However, "higher education should be there for anyone who wants to access it irrespective of wealth or family background but based upon genuine and sustained intellectual commitment to engaging in rigorous and challenging academic pursuits".

"The raison d'être of a university is to further our understanding of the world and pass on a body of knowledge from one generation to the next," she explained. "Should it really become an employment skills factory, a summer camp where people are happy, or a political football to solve all social ills?"

Dr Williams will be among the panel members at "Students: Consumers at the Heart of a University?", a discussion on 21 October at the Battle of Ideas Festival - for which Times Higher Education is a specialist media partner.

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