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Are we just a boot-camp for the labour market?

Lying behind David Walker's question, "Who knows what a graduate is?" (7 December) is a more fundamental question: viz, What is a university? A disturbingly straightforward answer to this question can be found in the rhetoric of vocationally relevant education, transferable skills, etc, that now resounds through our universities. When it is borne in mind that this rhetoric has been promoted by the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC), it is but a short step to the conclusion that the HEQC's governmental masters conceive of higher education as a mere boot-camp for the labour market.

With such an unashamedly instrumental view of our universities now dominant, it is unsurprising to learn from Walker that few now regard the primary benefit of higher education as being an "an ability to criticise the status quo".

Richard Mullender

Lecturer in Law

Newcastle Law School, Newcastle, NE1.

Making ends meet

Last week you published a letter from Louise Dash, a fourth-year MSc Physics student at Birkbeck College, which referred to a working party document currently subject to consultation throughout the college.

The strategic working party was appointed by the college governors to consider the academic and financial strategy with a view to avoiding a projected deficit over the next five years. The working party has recommended income generation measures, savings in expenditure and changes to the organisation which could lead to efficiency savings. Among its recommendations is the eventual closure of the department of Physics by the year 2000 and the extension of teaching hours by one hour on weekday evenings. The views of all staff and students of the college will be taken into account. No decision will be taken before the meeting of governors on 20 March 1997 and teaching hours will not be extended as proposed if feedback from students indicates that it would be impractical.

Your readers will all be aware that UK higher education has in recent years experienced considerable reductions in levels of funding per student. The difficulties created are having serious financial effects on all higher education institutions. Most universities are having to cut their expenditure. It is with much regret that Birkbeck College has to start considering such measures. Unfortunately, in the current funding climate, it is the only way Birkbeck will be able to avoid a deficit and continue to offer high-quality courses for part-time students.

Tessa Blackstone

Master, Birkbeck College

University of London

Governors and their role

Maureen O'Connor says that governors don't have the hassle of a democratic election ("Whose School is it Anyway?" Education+, 28 November). They do. Parent governors are elected in a secret ballot by other parents. Teacher governors are elected by their fellow teachers.

She fails to identify the important role that governors play in ensuring that the school is accountable, through them, to the local community. In our present democratic thinking, no institution would be acceptable if it did not have a check or balance to the autonomy of the chief executive and paid employees. Governors are that check.

Most governing bodies are well up to the job if they have the resources and information to do it. Most LEAs do not provide information to governors directly, but through the headteacher. If the headteacher is part of the problem, then the information is unlikely to get passed through to them.

Governors could do with positive support rather than the current witch- hunt, which is both irresponsible and insulting. It would help, for instance, if they could be included properly in education, starting with participation in the decision-making process of their local authority education committees.

Pat Petch, chair, National Governors' Council

Crediton, Devon EX7 2AF.

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