What kind of graduates do we need?

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.

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7 Comments on “What kind of graduates do we need?”

  1. Mike Boxall Says:

    This post addresses what is probably the single most important challenge facing universities today, as it goes directly to the heart of the purpose and relevance of a university education to the working lives awaiting today’s young people. The atached report by Michael Stevenson for NCUB (http://www.ncub.co.uk/reports/green-paper2.html) reinforces the concerns that UK graduates are not emerging well-prepared for employers’ needs, while those from other – ostensibly less prestigious – HE systems appear to be better prepared for 21st century careers. We might perhaps ask whether the answers lie in differences between the providers or in the attitudes and motivations of the young people themselves?

  2. V.H Says:

    There should be only one requirement, that of the student. The State is of no import. Neither is the needs of industry. And as to the needs of the academy if the academy does the first well enough its needs will automatically be protected.
    Yes you are very correct none are being served today. Why, well, how the holy hell can you serve the needs of industry an the attendant grousing&moaning they do to government both of whom are addressing current requirements. Both are asking you to abracadabra fully formed worker as if they were welders.
    Remember a few years ago when there was a shortage of stonemasons in Ireland and someone mused in that ‘who will rid me’ way and then we had courses all over the place churning out men and women with an ability to dress stone. Great, excellent, brilliant idea. But did the course end once the market was saturated ?.
    How many stonemasons, thatchers or people with an ability to formulate an advertising strategy on FB do we really need. How many people with an ability to dowse the mud from a sub-sea bore and say another 1000ft.
    What’s the answer. Well it isn’t what’s occurring in 3rd level today. You cannot keep over-producing without an attendant nimbleness where the people can cross disciplines.
    You mentioned the liberal arts model, and yes that’s certainly a way of doing things, albeit a rather costly one for the student. But why not make things simpler to move disciplines within and between academies.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    To add to the “general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates,” I’d like to mention that there is a clear international dimension to such debates. Given the transnational nature of knowledge, the global challenges that we face and the fact that universities are local but also global players the *right* graduates will be the ones that can best serve such interests, perhaps once we stop obsessing about immigration we might even acknowledge that a better collaboration and co-ordination of resources, at least at European level, might serve just such purpose.

  4. Greg Foley Says:

    Interesting questions. One of the issues we have in Ireland is an obsession with making IT industries the cornerstone of our industrial development policy. The result is a constant level of whining – especially by CEOs of multinationals – about the lack of suitably qualified graduates. The implication is that the third level system is not doing its job. The obvious point that they ignore is the fact that most young people just don’t fancy a career in IT – and why should they? (The applications to the universities through Ireland’s CAO system prove this unequivocally.) Young Irish people in particular show a strong bias towards the humanities and the ‘caring professions’. There is absolutely no point in trying to herd young people into disciplines that don’t really appeal to them and then expect them to be ‘high quality’ graduates working in areas that at the time are deemed to be of strategic importance.

  5. Kazi Islam Says:

    Yes, I’m agree with your three possible perspectives.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    We need to produce grads that are equipped with the skills to cope with the economy that is present now than in the 1950’s … people must choose themselves and make things happen instead of stepping into a position that is supposed to be “waiting for them”

    Great article as always!

  7. Randall Plunkett Says:

    This in an interesting note, but three things strike me.
    1: Is attending college not about finding yourself and having your mind trained in a certain way that should leave you open to adaptability when finding a career.
    2: Following on from 1 above, is the freedom (ability?) to chose any course a student wants to study not the benchmark we want to achieve?
    3: Successive governments have failed to develop and fund the educational system adequately and the country has suffered as a consequence. Should the universities not take the lead and identify gaps in skills and provide courses to fill them over the medium to long term?

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