'Naughty' Esler knocks narrow focus on skills

June 5, 2008

The head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council has hit out at the skills agenda, warning that universities are being diverted into delivering "narrow competencies".

Speaking at seminar last week on knowledge transfer hosted by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, Philip Esler branded himself "naughty" for attacking government policy.

"The skills agenda can have the unfortunate consequence of diverting us from the fact that universities are not about narrow competencies," he told delegates. "They are about producing people who have powerful analytical and critical capacities ... which can then be applied in any area of the economy."

Dr Esler's criticism follows a series of high-profile warnings about the implications of the Government's target to ensure that 40 per cent of all adults have degree-level skills.

In February, Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, said the Government was encouraging a view of education as little more than a tool for getting a job. "Too few people value education for its own sake. Undergraduates are rarely motivated by a love of the discipline they study. Degrees are seen as a means to an end with no real interest in what the degree is about. Similarly, a job is seen as a means to the end of getting money with no real interest in the business," he said.

Last year, Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, warned that businesses had "very little interest at all" in government targets and feared that the quality of graduates was being traded for mere quantity.

At the University and College Union annual conference last week, a motion criticised the Government for redefining education as "skills acquisition".

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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