I was at a discussion forum a while ago, and one of the topics was whether our universities were producing ‘the right graduates’; by which was meant graduates with qualifications for which there is a national need. Of course this is a loaded question, because it starts with the assumption that ‘national needs’ of this kind can be successfully identified, and that therefore there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ graduate.
I would suggest that there are three possible perspectives on this. The first is that the ‘right’ graduates are those who have graduated from the courses they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority subjects in anyone else’s perspective, including that of the government. The second is the opposite, that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that we have a viable flow of graduates who have acquired skills for which a need has been identified. The third might lie somewhere in between, with a mix of free choice qualified by availability, where the latter is driven by national priorities.
The problem right now is that, for the most part, we have none of these. It would be hard to say that there is free choice for students, because in exercising their choices they may often have been influenced or put under pressure by others (including parents). On the other hand we don’t have state control either. You might think that we actually have the third ‘middle way’ model, but we don’t. What restricts free choice is not national priorities, but rather the artificial distortions of higher education funding mixed with the vagaries of university recruitment and selection mechanisms.
It seems to me that there are some general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates. Some might argue that those who have secured very good university examination results can become the ‘right’ graduate in almost any field. In addition, any graduate who has acquired transferable skills that will support economic and social development is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the course they took is considered irrelevant to the business sector the graduate is now pursuing.
On the other hand, it could be argued that higher education has a crucial role in securing a better distribution of specific skills and qualifications in the interests of the country. In Scotland’s case, and in particular in the circumstances of North-East Scotland, there is a constant debate about the extent to which the education system is producing enough graduates with skills in areas such as petroleum engineering or subsea geology, in order to plug the skills gap in the oil and gas industry. Should this determine the availability of student places? Or if not, should funding agencies and universities just ignore labour market requirements?
So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider courses for which a national need has been identified. Or should we should just let them go for whatever they want to do? Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a system where undergraduate programmes and modules follow a liberal arts model, and that specialisation (whether at the discretion of the student or with some other guidance) is reserved for postgraduate programmes and research?
I fear that we are groping around in this territory because we do not at this point have a consensus view of the purpose of higher education. Do we want higher education programmes to satisfy national skills needs in a more directed way, or do we want them simply to offer whatever it is the students want? Or maybe it is appropriate for different institutions, or perhaps even different parts of the same institution, to view this question differently. Indeed the real lesson for us may be that this kind of question does not have a right answer.