Education: Are our degrees working?

Universities are being urged to teach students employability skills. But, asks Lucy Hodges, is this really a good idea?
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The Independent Online
Should universities teach students how to make themselves employable as part of their degree? Should they teach what are known in education- speak as "key skills" - how to communicate, how to use mathematics and computers, how to work with others - on top of their academic work? Should they teach students about personal attributes that will make them more marketable?

Clearly, ministers think they should, just as Baroness Thatcher and her Employment Secretary, Lord Young, thought they should. So too do the Committee of vice-chancellors and principals (CVCP) and the Department for Education and Employment, which have just published a joint report saying that university bosses should give the matter their "active support" and should consider appointing "skills co-ordinators" to drive the initiative forward.

Publication of the report - Skills Development in Higher Eduction - is a sign of how far the issue has come. Everyone is jumping on the "key skills" bandwagon. Education Secretary David Blunkett told the CBI this month that more basic skills would be built into universities' curriculums. Together with the Department of Trade and Industry he is setting up a fund to support work skills. Blunkett is also keen to encourage students, particularly in arts and humanities, to do work experience to make them more enterprising and employable.

All this has been welcomed by many experts, particularly in the new universities that pioneered the subject. Patrick Coldstream, visiting professor at London's Institute of Education and the former director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says: "The report is a move in the right direction towards taking employability skills seriously. Most students now expect that when they leave university they will be able to do more than just repeat their subject."

No one is against the kind of work experience being undertaken by Torsten Gerhardt of City University (see box, below). In fact, work experience commands wide support at most universities. Around 50 per cent of full- time students work part-time anyway to supplement their meagre loans and burnish their CVs.

But not all academics agree that universities should have to teach employability skills. First, they think it's not their job. Second, many think that the notion of teaching such skills is antithetical to the purpose of higher education - the pursuit of truth. Third, some academics are rather short on such skills themselves.

Professor Alan Ryan, the warden of New College Oxford, describes the report as "complete drivel from one end to the other". His undergraduates don't need to be taught skills such as IT and communication because they have mastered those already, he says.

"Part of the difficulty is that we're using university as remedial education for all the things that in any other civilised society you teach children - like being able to sit on you bum for long enough to listen to someone else and to comport yourself in such a way that other people are prepared listen to you," he says. "Why universities should become a dustbin into which you dump all the problems of the rest of society is very mysterious."

Alan Smithers, Sydney Jones professor of higher education at the University of Liverpool, believes higher education should stick to what it's good at rather than try to change undergraduates' personalities. "Universities are good at developing an understanding of the corpus of knowledge," he says. "They're very good at honing those skills: critical analysis, being able to spot something that is real or something nebulous or false - like this concept of employability."

The subject is virtually impossible to define, says Smithers. "Trying to pin down employability is like looking for the end of the rainbow. I am very employable as a university academic but I would not be a great asset on the rugby pitch."

The driving force behind the report was Professor Leslie Wagner, the vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, who chairs the learning, teaching and employment group of the CVCP, and makes no bones about his commitment to the subject. "One of the important roles of higher education is to make students more employable," he says. "That argument is won as far as I am concerned."

"In the old days we thought we were doing enough to teach traditional intellectual skills. What has changed is that employers are now taking more of their senior people from the graduate pool and the nature of employment has become more complex, so there is a demand for more employability skills." The real question is how you teach them, he says. Do you embed them in the curriculum or do you have separate modules?

Wagner prefers making them part of the curriculum. So does Dick Glover, an education consultant who has been helping Leeds University to do just that. A course on urban hydrology, for example, was changed so that students grappled with the kind of problems companies face when trying to reduce pollution. The undergraduates had to put together an investment plan and work within a budget. "It makes students think about real situations and see the problems from other perspectives, not just green ones," says Glover.

Initiatives of this kind abound in universities, especially in courses that have a vocational bent. The new report is not therefore saying anything new. That is why Professor Lee Harvey, director of the centre for research into quality at the University of Central England, criticises the CVCP for commissioning the report in the first place. "What they should have done is said employability is being treated seriously, people are doing all sort of things to take employability skills on board. It already is happening in many places."

The report was aimed at the university top dogs - the vice chancellors. Does Wagner expect them to take action? "I expect them to read it and make sure that, within their institution, the issues are considered," he says.

However, some people think vice chancellor involvement could be counter- productive. "It's the sort of thing that, if vice chancellors try to impose it, academics will run a mile," says Professor Gareth Williams, of the London Institute of Education. "If it emerges out of debate, it might be accepted more easily."

The CVCP is holding a conference on the subject of employability skills at Woburn House, 20 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HQ on January 18, 1999. For further information ring 0171 419-5406. 'Skills Development in Higher Eduction', is available from the CVCP at the above address, pounds 7.50 or pounds 5 for the short report.