Mandelson says universities ‘are not factories for producing workers’

First Secretary aims to reassure sector in first major speech on higher education. Phil Baty reports

July 27, 2009

Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, has promised support for universities pursuing knowledge as “an end in itself” amid concern that the Government sees higher education solely in terms of delivering economic outcomes.

In his first major speech on higher education since taking responsibility for the sector under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills remit, Lord Mandelson stressed the role that universities must play in building a stronger UK economy, but he made clear that delivering economic outcomes was not the primary function of a university.

“I recognise that bringing university policy into a department with ‘business’ in its title has not thrilled everyone in the university world. But it really puts universities at the heart of policy on our future growth and prosperity.

“I need to be clear that I do not believe that the function of a university is limited to – or even primarily about – economic outcomes. They are not factories for producing workers. Defining the skills that directly underwrite many skilled jobs in the UK is not the same as defining useful and necessary knowledge. The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from Classics to quantum physics is a compelling one.

“I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself; because historical awareness and critical thinking are part of the inventory of a rounded human being.”

Speaking at Birkbeck, University of London, on July, Lord Mandelson confirmed that he had delayed publication of the Government’s framework on higher education, which was due this month, until the autumn.

A central plank of the framework would be to ensure that universities can turn “more of the knowledge that is generated in UK universities into jobs and growth, especially by bringing businesses and universities together to collaborate”, he said.

“There is a need for a collective strategic vision for the sector and its role in our national economic life. That is the balance we will aim to strike in the Higher Education Framework.”

Although Lord Mandelson said he would not pre-empt the review of tuition fees due to begin later this year, he stated that their introduction had been a success. “We have instituted a fees system that has, in my view, been a radical and signal success in strengthening the resources available to universities without sacrificing accessibility to students.

“But we are obviously facing an incredibly difficult decade of rebuilding growth and future strengths in Britain. There are tough decisions ahead. Our graduates face the toughest job market for years. And ultimately those big 20th-century higher education questions are still with us: For what end? For whom? Paid for how?

“I do not believe that we can separate the issues of fees, access and student support. Any institution that wants to use greater costs to the student to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay.

“Whatever funding mix for higher education we develop, there must always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay.”

What Mandelson said:

On the economy

The challenge is to “turn more of the knowledge that is generated in UK universities into jobs and growth, especially by bringing business and universities together to collaborate”.

There is a need to “equip people as rounded intellectual beings but also giving them the skills they will need in a global economy”.

On widening access to university

“We are doing better, but not well enough. I am impatient about this progress... I think we have to ask: why, for all the work in the sector and all the seriousness with which it has tackled this question are we still making only limited progress in widening access to higher education to young people from poorer backgrounds – especially at our most selective universities”.

On admissions

“As well as the usual criteria of standardized testing, there is a strong case for using other more contextual benchmarks for talent spotting that look at the way candidates have exploited the opportunities open to them in their lives. Some universities in the UK are using these approaches. There is good evidence that they work. And any vice chancellor that takes a broad and innovative approach to identifying talent will have the firm backing of the government.”

On tuition fees

“I have no intention of pre-empting the independent fees review… but I would make a simple point… I do not believe that we can separate the issues of fees, access and student support. Any institution that wants to use greater costs to the students to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay.”

On postgraduate education

“It is a major export earner for the UK, and one which we have perhaps taken too much for granted. For that reason, I have decided to launch a review of postgraduate provision in Britain… to report back in early 2010.”

On delivery

“There is a clearly a place for the conventional, campus-based, full-time, away-from-home model of study… but we need to keep encouraging the alternatives that are springing up: two year honours degrees, part time modular degrees, modular programmes that don’t have to lead to a full degree.”

On university teaching

“We need to look for ways of incentivising excellence in academic teaching”

On the Research Excellence Framework

“We need to keep looking for innovative ways to bring businesses and researchers together, including incentives for collaboration in the new REF”.

On the international student market

“We will throw our weight behind UK universities looking to export their brands globally”

Prettier in print

For more on Lord Mandelson's speech, make sure you pick up your copy of Times Higher Education this Thursday.

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