Posted tagged ‘vocational education’

Too much higher education?

March 24, 2015

In many develop countries it has been government policy for some time to secure growing levels of participation in higher education. While I was President of Dublin City University the Irish government had a target participation rate of over 60 per cent. In the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, the target was 50 per cent. Going for high targets is the ultimate destination in the process of ‘massification’, under which universities have ceased to be educators of the elite only and have opened their doors to those who would not in previous generations have considered this to be an accessible, appropriate or affordable route.

But not everyone thinks this is necessarily the right policy. Last year the founder of the Virgin group of companies, Richard Branson, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper:

‘Ten years ago it felt as though teenagers in Britain were being told that university was the be all and end all, whereas in reality higher education wasn’t of use to many of those paying for it.’

Branson felt that, in particular, the rush for everyone to go to university was threatening to deprive the country and the economy of people with vital skills, particularly digital skills of importance to the IT sector. These skills he felt were generally not acquired in universities, but through other forms of vocational training. This trend, if not arrested, would endanger relevant industry investment.

In other accounts, it has been suggested (in this case in the Daily Telegraph) that too many young people were being cajoled into university; and some of them would find that higher education didn’t suit them, and they would drop out.

Of course there are other issues wrapped up in this discussion, including the question of how ‘vocational’ a university education should or should not be (and therefore whether universities can or should provide some of the skills the economy may be at risk of lacking). There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged. But it may well be time to ask the question of how far university education can, or should, go.

Education, or skills, or what?

October 22, 2011

An interesting public argument has been taking place in the United States, one that should have resonances elsewhere also. It was prompted by a statement from the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott. The Governor has been cutting the state’s budget, and in doing so has mused on what he would and would not like to be funding in higher education. One thing he doesn’t want to fund is programmes in anthropology. And why?  Because he doesn’t think there is employment for people who have taken a degree in anthropology. These are the Governor’s further thoughts in the matter:

‘Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so… It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.’

And what does he want to fund, sort of? ‘Science, technology, engineering, and math degrees’, so that ‘when our kids get out of school, they can get a job’.

Comments such as this are part of the debate that has been taking place on the nature and purpose of higher education, and on the extent to which university degree programmes should reflect vocational and professional objectives. One of the most interesting university presidents in America, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, has responded to Governor Scott’s musings:

‘The notion that we must strip away academic programs not seemingly relevant to workforce development reflects a simplistic and retrograde view of the role of higher education in the American economy.

The governor is correct in one regard: The imperative to advance STEM education cannot be overstated. Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to our national competitiveness, we should focus on increasing the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of all of our students. But resolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.’

Governor Scott clearly has no idea what university education is for, and Michael Crow’s riposte is most valuable and absolutely right. Still, very often the discussion about vocationalism in higher education is not very enlightening. The classic university disciplines are still vitally important. But on the other hand, those who believe that programmes connected with professions or employments are not appropriate in a university will really need to roll back most of what happened to universities since the mid-19th century. Subjects such as engineering, law, accountancy, architecture – not to mention social work, medicine and so forth – are all vocational, and indeed the content of university programmes in these subjects is largely determined by professional bodies.

Students overwhelmingly go to university so that they may be better equipped to enter the labour market. Universities need to recognise that, but also ensure that they are equipped to be creative, critical, analytical and culturally aware (even in Florida). There is room for a great diversity of programmes, but all of them should adopt intellectual ambition and integrity. That is the common thread; the exact subject-matter of university programmes is not.