Kick ‘corporate skills’ out of the academy

When even English Lit students get marks for work experience, you know universities have been colonised by the market.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Since the demise of New Labour last year, the Liberal-Conservative coalition government has given the cautious impression that it will put high academic values back at the heart of the UK education system. Its attacks on learning-by-rote methods in the classroom and on schools that prioritise so-called soft subjects suggest a changing cultural climate in relation to education. However, the shift towards instrumentalised education policies over the past 15 years seems to be so deep-rooted that the onward march of ‘relevance’ in education, of treating education merely as a stepping stone to a career, looks likely to continue.

Consider the latest scheme piloted at some universities. Various higher education institutions plan to award students extra marks in their degrees if they can show corporate skills or some type of experience in the jobs market.

Undergraduates on all courses, not just business-related ones, could earn extra credits for showing that they possess the ability to run a workshop or make a good presentation, under the University of Leicester’s plans. University College London’s careers unit is in discussions with senior managers over how to accredit employment skills to students, while the prestigious Durham University is considering giving marks for work experience. Workplace-skills courses have been a compulsory part of vocationally oriented undergraduate degrees, such as engineering, for several years. But awarding employment-related credits to an English literature student, say, is a new and worrying step.

Supporters of these new initiatives argue that more and more students are picking their degree courses on the basis of whether it will prepare them for the jobs market. Paul Jackson, director of student support and development at the University of Leicester, said his institution is ‘looking closely at how to embed corporate skills into the curriculum at the undergraduate stage’. He said university managers were even discussing whether students should be allowed to complete their courses without taking a corporate-skills course first. ‘There is no difference between academic skills and employment skills’, he said. ‘We are looking for students who can apply things in a new context.’

This is the latest in a long line of vocationally oriented ideas designed to reform education around the perceived needs of business. Such initiatives rest on the assumption that the role of education is to produce future employees, to instil in young people the skills they will need for the workplace. The obsession with boosting students’ employability – often at the expense of their intellectual development – clearly doesn’t bode well for the creation of future academics, poets, historians or scientists. A decade ago, Britain’s elite universities were complaining about the lack of knowledge and rigour among the new intake of straight-A school-leavers. Yet when even an elite university like Durham starts eulogising about the merits of marketable skills, you can see that it is actually universities that are lowering educational expectations.

Education is not a process of spreading transferable skills to the next generations. Students are not automatons who can be programmed with the requisite skills for a working life. In developing young people’s minds, a rounded education should give them the ability to pick up skills that they need when they need them and to work out problems both intellectually and practically. Education is a transformative process – and as such, a solid, academic secondary education is as crucial for plumbers as it is for poets. But leaving aside that practical dimension, these new proposals reveal how much universities, the higher seats of learning, are distancing themselves from the old liberal value of learning ideas for their own sake.

The populist turn over the past 15 years, which has been based on the idea of making culture more relevant and less alienating to so-called ordinary people, means that even high-ranking universities are increasingly cut off from the realm of ideas. Certainly the shift towards accrediting English Lit students for practical skills reveals a hesitance about championing English as a core humanities discipline. In a society that is estranged from great English literature, it is not surprising that even for English academics the subject can appear ‘not very relevant’ and in need of greater accessibility (ie, dumbing down). This problem is compounded by the fact that the secondary-school teaching profession has in many ways given up on trying to instil advanced literary skills into its students. Today’s education system spends more time identifying alleged medical reasons as to why some students have poor handwriting or difficulty writing cogent sentences than it does espousing the virtues of literacy. Searching for practical applications for English degrees is simply the next logical development in a subject area that has already been downgraded in recent years.

The shift towards awarding vocational merits in academic subjects suggests that good universities are now morphing into further education (FE) colleges. Many of the transferable-skills proposals put forward by the aforementioned universities have been a feature of A-level assessments for nearly a decade, with FE and sixth-form teachers frequently assessed on whether they are imparting these key skills to students. Where universities once set the agenda for the content of education in society more broadly, now it is the vocational-oriented FE college which, by default, is innovating on the meaning of education. Higher education is increasingly playing a similar role to that of FE colleges in the 1980s: as a kind of holding centre for young people at a time of high youth unemployment.

Although surveys of employers suggest that they still prefer candidates with academic qualifications, the higher education system is pressing on with the vocational and transferable-skills reforms. Rather than being piloted by government education ministers, the latest proposal to assess academic degree courses on their provision of work-based skills has come from some of the UK’s top universities themselves. It’s an alarming development, but one that is the logical outgrowth of an elite that is increasingly unwilling to develop higher culture and higher learning.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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