Lift fees cap to help sector, Denham told

As university user groups report to the minister, John Chisholm calls for more competition and more industry involvement. Hannah Fearn reports

February 19, 2009

The Government has been urged to lift the cap on top-up fees to allow the university sector to flourish.

Sir John Chisholm, chairman of both the Medical Research Council and the defence technology company QinetiQ, makes the recommendation in a report for the Universities Secretary, John Denham.

He says that lifting the cap on student fees while offering incentives for business to increase its funding for higher education will provide universities with the greater economic freedom they need. The result, he writes, will be a "more diverse and competitive university sector" that will benefit companies and students.

The report is part of a wide-ranging debate on the future of higher education initiated by Mr Denham.

It comes just days after Adrian Smith, the Government's director-general for science and research, warned that political inertia over fees risked leaving universities to go "bankrupt". He said that the fees debate had been "kicked into touch" until after the next general election because "neither party wanted to touch it".

"In the meantime, universities are going bankrupt because they don't have enough money," he said.

Sir John writes that a fixed cap on fees provides little scope for demand to influence quality and supply within universities, which he says is vital for disciplines at the centre of skills shortages, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

He also says that it is up to businesses to influence student choices at university by giving "stronger market signals" about what industry needs, stimulating interest in essential disciplines that are struggling to turn out enough graduates.

Offering attractive bursaries could help to kindle interest, Sir John says.

The report also makes demands on businesses, which it says must shoulder responsibility for improving innovation in universities by doing more to work alongside researchers.

"Further 'push' measures from the university side would probably be less effective than alternative measures to enhance the 'pull' from the corporate side," it says.

Universities, meanwhile, are told that they should work to capture more of the continuing education market - their share is only 1 per cent - with institutions urged to learn lessons from the success of The Open University.

Sir John warns that universities are very different from companies and that it would be wrong to turn them into "corporate lookalikes".

But he extols the virtues of competition. "Since the introduction of a competitive regime for university research, the UK has become a world leader in the effectiveness of its research system," he writes.

In another response to Mr Denham's review, John Griffith-Jones, the UK chair of the professional services firm KPMG, says universities must do more to align degrees with business needs, but that industry must be clearer about what it is looking for and what it is willing to fund.

He says that universities should be able to teach more flexibly, outside the lecture theatre and within a business environment, and he proposes a new type of degree in which the third and final year is divided between academic study and experience in the workplace.

However, Mr Griffith-Jones pours cold water on the growth of vocational degrees, saying that KPMG is looking for "top talent" rather than accountancy graduates. "We work on the basis that we are better able to teach and train our graduates from scratch," he says.

In a similar vein, Dame Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of publishing giant Pearson, writes: "The overarching purpose of a university is to teach students to be excited by ideas, and to develop the skills of observation and critical thinking to enable them to develop new skills, fresh knowledge and sound judgment throughout their lives."

She also stresses the importance of an "expansive world view" for graduates, emphasising the value of languages, cultural politics, sociology and history.

These subjects, she says, should be requirements, not add-ons, and she criticises the system for turning out graduates with poor communication skills. "These skills are more crucial to leadership than the ability to read balance sheets, yet they have little status in university or business schools," she says.

Richard Wainer, head of education and skills at the CBI, writes: "Very few (employers) are looking for a specific degree ... it's the wider skills that they really want to see."

Universities UK welcomed the reports. "We are pleased that they have recognised that universities are equipping students with the skills that businesses need.

"Many UK universities are working with business to develop new business-focused degrees, and on enhancing their graduates' employability in innovative ways.

"It should remain the purpose of universities to prepare graduates for a career and for life, not a single job," it said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

ARTS AND CULTURE

A leading light of British theatre has said universities must do more to train the "audiences of tomorrow".

In his report to the Government, Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, says: "We can no longer assume that an audience will be well versed in the classics, in the Bible or even in English history." He suggests that extracurricular courses in culture could be run alongside degree programmes.

He adds that there is a perception that a traditional education in the humanities "may be at odds with a target-driven academic world".

Mr Hytner, who directed the recent film adaptation of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, also says that a lack of funding for postgraduate training in drama schools was "leading to a situation where the best-trained actors will be those whose background is wealthy enough to support them.

"For those who would benefit from both a degree course and vocational training, the current obligation to choose between them is intolerable."

He also warns that funding arrangements that have forced drama schools to adopt degree-awarding status are putting pressure on them to move away from vital practical training to accommodate more academic courses.

"I am not convinced time spent on education in theatre theory is time well spent in a drama school," he says.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

PUBLIC SECTOR

Vice-chancellors are "emasculated" by academic freedom and must adopt a corporate approach if universities are to contribute fully to local economic prosperity.

A report by Tom Russell, head of London's Olympic Legacy Directorate, says that the "jealously guarded" tradition of academic freedom means that even when vice-chancellors are enthusiastic about urban regeneration, they cannot pursue it unless they have the backing of other senior staff.

While acknowledging the importance of academic freedom, he says that it would be "unthinkable" for a government minister to face such hurdles. The problem, the report says, "accentuates the difference between conventional corporate structures in Government and in private business ... and universities".

He says universities should do more to ensure that goods and services are sourced locally from firms that are good employers, while encouraging local people to apply for the jobs that they themselves offer.

He also criticises the research assessment exercise for failing to consider the economic impact of research, and warns that a skills shortage in urban regeneration is being compounded by a lack of appropriate courses.

"There remains great untapped potential in the contribution universities could make. This will require a greater internal corporate focus within (them)," the report says.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

HEALTH

Students in the healthcare professions receive teaching of variable quality from clinicians and academics, says a report considering what the National Health Service will need from higher education in the next 10-15 years.

The report by Ann Close, visiting professor of nursing at Birmingham City University, says most academics have "training in fundamental teaching skills", but their knowledge of practical developments in their speciality is "variable".

Clinical tutors, who provide up to half of all training to healthcare students, are primarily service providers. "Often these groups have had little preparation to undertake their role as teachers and assessors, and there is little support or reward for doing it," the report says. "Consequently, what is taught and how students are supported is variable."

The higher education sector and the NHS have responded in a variety of ways to link theory and practice, for example through joint appointments. Some universities have produced practice educators for some groups, but these are limited in availability, the report says.

Two further reports commissioned by the Government, from Anthony Lilley on small businesses and the creative sector and from T. Ramasami, Secretary to the Indian Department for Science and Technology, have yet to be completed.

melanie.newman @tsleducation.com.

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