Richard Garner: There is much to be recommended in Mandelson’s blueprint

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The Independent Online

It is, of course, hard to argue with the concept that our universities should do their best to equip the nation with the skilled workforce that it needs to compete in the globalised economy of the 21st century.

As a result, today’s blueprint from Peter Mandelson’s department adds, there is a need to give priority to funding so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

The danger is this will take the focus and funding away from subjects like arts and the humanities.

Lord Mandelson insists he would be disappointed if that was the case. Universities are there to serve our civilisation through the offer of a wide range of course options, he adds.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, disagrees. “The Government and opposition are in danger of creating a worrying agenda that is focussed purely on trying to justify the cost of a degree,” she said.

Respected academic Professor Alan Smithers, from the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment, is in her corner. He argues that universities should be about helping people to make a better fist of understanding the short time they spend on this planet.

Obviously, Lord Mandelson could not have said that universities are NOT about helping equip the nation with the necessary workforce but I have to tell him that any attempt to make me better equipped to meet the needs of the workforce by convincing me to study a STEM subject would have been a disaster. Far better that I was left to my own devices and muse about education.

That having been said, there is much to be recommended in the Mandelson package.

In particular, the student rights element of the package is to be welcomed.

Gone are the days when universities are ivory towers where the elite think great thoughts and police their own studies. Expanding higher education from six per cent of the population to 43 per cent has necessarily brought with it the need for those from a family experiencing higher education for the first time to have more knowledge of what is expected of them and what they can expect from their tutors.

I would also support Lord Mandelson’s comments on widening participation. I know there will be howls of anguish from many in the independent sector of education that their students with top grade A-level passes will be brushed aside for those with lower qualifications from struggling state secondary schools.

It’s a question, though, of the proof of the pudding being in the eating. Research at Harvard University in the United States showed that affirmative action in taking the brightest youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds has paid dividends. The youngsters selected got better degree grades, in general, than those with higher qualifications from more affluent backgrounds.

Evidence from universities in the UK – such as Bristol – suggest the same is happening here. Lord Mandelson is right. It should be all about potential.