Skills make real world go round

March 22, 1996

Student support is a key concern for Dearing and any sensible analysis of undergraduates' needs means engaging in the oft-muddled debate on skills.

Dearing's review will focus on maximum participation. With higher numbers has come greater diversity. But how real or new is this diversity? Some universities have always offered places to non-traditional entrants. Perhaps the idea of a "mass higher education" is part of the moral panic about standards? The panic about standards in schools and further education obviously has a knock-on effect in higher education. But the issue is about more than whether university entrants can read and write or A levels and NVQs. Remedial need is not necessarily a result of diversity. Diversity and study needs are not automatically connected.

Significantly, Dearing's terms of reference include regard for "the future labour market". Academics are concerned about creeping vocationalism undermining theoretical understanding. Higher-level study means being able to analyse material, create models and develop abstractions that do not always fit neatly into day-to-day experience. If this is not possible then creative change is difficult.

Students, however, need to work effectively in a real world and learn to apply their studies. The Enterprise in Higher Education initiative has highlighted this point by focusing on transferability of skills. Transferability is surely the substance of critical analysis; abstracting general principles and applying these in different settings. Dearing suggests that one answer to his brief for a cost-effective expansion is information technology. The potential of Internet teaching is exciting but is not the solution to skill development. If IT teaching is not framed in a discipline it will become another isolated, bolt-on skill package.

Skill development should be tackled from different directions, including course structure and content. Tutorials can introduce students to the ethos of the school or departmental system and highlight skills they are expected to acquire. Peer mentoring can also be valuable although some students will prefer professional support.

Dearing will look abroad for ideas to change higher education. One South African university has an academic development unit offering wide-ranging support to tutors and students. The name of the unit emphasises their desire to throw off a deficit model of learning. At Sussex, we have established an educational equality unit with a similar ethos. The unit has pump-priming money but until learning development is funded as part of the core Higher Educaton Funding Council grant, we will not be able to answer demands from students.

Academic skill development is central to the purpose of higher education and until we are able to offer a range of skill development, including support for academics involved in teaching, we will not be meeting the challenge of "maximum participation". I hope Sir Ron and his committee take note.

Mary Stuart Assistant director of Student Experience, University of Sussex.

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