Groomed for the office

The Government wants companies to design degree courses so that students are ready for work when they graduate. But are the firms prepared to pay? Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

When Vijay Mistry was applying to university, he knew what he wanted to study: accounting and finance. And he fancied the idea of a sandwich degree with a one-year industry work placement because he knew it would help him to get a job. He tried Lancaster and Loughborough universities.

Out of the blue came a letter from Lancaster telling him about a new Ernst & Young degree that it was launching, which included a bursary, 18 months' work experience and a fast-track to a professional career.

Mistry was intrigued; he applied and was pleased to get on the course.

"We have to work very hard," he says. "We are learning everything very quickly and I hope to get a job with the company at the end of it."

Last month, he was on a fortnight's law course taking place in the university vacation and requiring attendance from 9.30am to 4.30pm each day, with an exam at the end of the two weeks. "It's difficult, but you get from it what you put in," he says stoically.

The four-year course at Lancaster's flagship management school is a model of its kind. The company is able to pick and help train some of the brightest of the next generation, and the university is burnishing its reputation for excellence in finance and accounting as well as cementing its relationship with one of the Big Four firms of accountants.

"Recruiting the very best talent simply makes good business sense," says Emma Judge, the head of UK graduate recruitment for Ernst & Young. "This degree makes it easy for us to identify and work with the best people early on and offer them real and exciting opportunities to fast-track their careers."

The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, wants to see more engagement between employers and universities. In his speech to the Universities UK annual meeting last month, he said that universities and business were natural bedfellows. "We need to break down the barriers which discourage employers from helping to fund and design higher-education courses," he said. "This may mean looking at governance systems, cultural barriers, and geographic issues."

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is another advocate of what is known in the jargon as employer-led higher education, and the Treasury is actively talking to universities about how the trend can be encouraged. The hope is that it will lead to another big expansion of higher education - generating jobs and wealth, and helping to meet acute skills shortages.

The nation needs highly skilled workers in health and social care as well as in energy, the environment and the creative industries. Is this the way to produce the people we need, and persuade employers to contribute to the cost?

"There is a big challenge there," says David Eastwood, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which is organising a number of pilot schemes promoting employer links. "Only 5 per cent of employers' training budgets go into higher education, so they are prepared to pay. A lot of that is bespoke training. But can you get employers to contribute a greater proportion of their training budget to partnerships with higher education?"

In the case of the new Ernst & Young degree, the company is paying for the extra teaching that has had to be provided for the new course, so Lancaster University is not out of pocket. "It puts us on the map," says Jackie Hughes, the administrator in the department of accounting and finance at the management school. "We want to attract top students, not just in the UK and the EU, but also internationally."

But not everyone is as sanguine about the trend. The historical strength of the British university curriculum is that it is generic and doesn't turn out students for a specific job, according to Professor Deian Hopkin, the vice-chancellor of London South Bank University. The question is how to involve employers more in, for example, providing work experience and helping with curricula design without undermining that strength.

"At the end of the day, we have to make clear that we provide an education for our students and not just training," says David Vaughn, the principal of Cumbria Institute of the Arts.

Professor Michael Worton, the vice-provost of University College London, agrees. UCL works with employers to discuss the skills graduates need but it must maintain its autonomy, he says. "That is enormously important. Even in fields such as engineering, we're not necessarily creating engineers for a particular job. It's an issue of our engaging with industry but not in any way being a handmaiden."

Many employers simply have no desire to prepare their workers better. They don't train their staff. And those that do, don't necessarily want the kind of qualifications on offer in higher education, according to Roger Brown, the vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University. They don't need degree-level qualifications.

Finally, not all universities believe that employers want to pay. UCL, for example, had talks with Shell over the past two and a half years about a Masters programme for mid-career staff, which got nowhere.

"We made a lot of progress," says Worton. "The question is, if you are putting a great deal of energy into producing a Masters for one particular company, it takes up a great deal of capacity. Is that the best use of your staff? I am not sure that business recognise the full cost of this."

On the whole, employers are not very keen to put money into education and training, according to Professor Graham Upton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University. His university has had particularly successful collaborations with local companies in the automotive and publishing industries. The automotive firms give gifts in kind, he says. BMW, for example, gave the university an engine for the students to learn on.

Despite the qualms, Hefce has invited bids from higher-education institutions that want to innovate and develop links with employers.

The council is also prepared to pay for extra student places to be co-funded with employers. If this takes off, it could mark a real shift in the funding of higher education from a system where teaching is funded by the state with some input from students, to one where employers contribute, too. "We're in an exploratory phase," says Sean Mackney, the head of learning and teaching at Hefce. "We need to develop demand from employers."