Employers 'stuck in 1970s' over co-funding

V-c says industry is quick to criticise universities, but slow to engage with them. John Gill reports

August 28, 2008

Today's business world has a "1970s" attitude towards universities and higher education that is hindering the Government's drive to boost employer engagement in higher education, according to the vice-chancellor of a leading employer-facing institution.

A key tenet of the Government's economic policy is to ensure that at least 40 per cent of adults have a degree-level qualification by 2020, with the huge expansion of higher education coming via increased employer-funded and employer-designed degrees, as well as more flexible study for employees.

But John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, said employers were quick to criticise graduates' skills but not yet properly engaging with universities to tackle the issues they complained about. "Employers are not doing enough. The Confederation of British Industry is in part correct when it criticises (graduate skills), but it should be being proactive and saying, 'Therefore this is what universities should be doing'," he said.

"I've organised a series of employment-sector dinners at Manchester in manufacturing, creative industries, construction, architecture and so on. We've always said, 'OK, you are critical - what should we be doing, how should we be working together, how shall we change the curriculum?'

"Then we've asked them questions that are really quite scary, like 'How familiar are you with the 14-19 diploma?', to which the answer almost universally is, 'Completely no understanding', and, 'Do you support foundation degrees at university?', to which the answer is, 'No.' So there's a real lack of understanding on the part of employers, and often their criticism is based on a 1970s model of higher education because that is their model of higher education."

The criticism is particularly relevant given Manchester Metropolitan's position within the sector as an employer-facing university, with the highest proportion of professionally accredited courses and the highest proportion of sandwich placements for students.

Professor Brooks, speaking in advance of a conference this week held by the European branch of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said it was right for universities to seek to improve links and relations with employers.

"I don't think it's avoidable that we should work closer with professions and employers; we could get into that deep debate about the role and purpose of higher education, but it is perfectly clear at MMU that the majority of our graduates have one priority, and that is to gain employment. That has been the case ever since the introduction of variable fees, so as student debt has grown, the focus on employment has also grown," he said.

However, he was less than optimistic about the Government's ambition to increase the number of courses that are co-funded with employers, insisting that the appetite was not there. He said: "I'm convinced the Government is being (overly optimistic) on co-funding, and ... I think there are going to be very small numbers indeed.

"Employers still take the view that they pay their taxes, which in part pay for higher education, and that they have not been persuaded of a need yet to co-fund. I've certainly not experienced any indication ... that they're willing to make serious contributions."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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