Should universities be actively preparing their students for the world of work? Increasingly, the answer from politicians, students and their parents is yes. Only last week John Denham, Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills, was urging higher education to lay on courses for older workers.
Now one university, the former Liverpool Polytechnic, has made the decision to go further than the usual diet of careers advice, work experience and job placements. Tomorrow it is announcing that it is incorporating World of Work (or WoW skills) into the degree offering.
Liverpool John Moores, one of the biggest universities in the country, with 25,000 students and a £160m turnover, has decided that higher education must raise its game and give students some of the workplace skills, such as managing projects and thinking strategically, that employers want.
And they're developing these WoW skills in concert with some big-name organisations including Marks & Spencer, Pilkington, the National Health Service, Ford, Littlewoods, Shell and the CBI. These organisations will be deciding what skills the students should have and will be in charge of assessing them through external accreditation. They have promised to work exclusively with the university for three years.
"I am almost tempted to say that university education is not fit for purpose any more," says Professor Mike Brown, vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores, in a slick PowerPoint presentation that tells his story. "You have got to offer students the graduate skills that come as part of their degree course, but in addition you need to give them world of work skills. It's the combination of the two that makes higher education fit for purpose."
The new programmes have been three years in the making and Brown believes that what his university is doing is unique. No other university in the world does as much in preparing students for working life, he says.
The revolution taking place in Liverpool, which begins this term, is two-pronged. All 421 degree programmes have been rewritten to include work-related skills and some experience for each student in the working world. And a graduate development centre has been set up to give students the special WoW skills. The WoW label has even been patented by the university.
All students starting at the university this autumn will leave in 2010 clutching a certificate to testify that they are ready for the workplace in addition to their degree. As from this term they will be benefiting from the computer suites, which will test their mathematical skills, as well as interview and training rooms at the graduate development centre, a building which is newly painted in pastel shades and covered in blue carpeting.
Brown is thrilled with the project and has developed a nice line in cocky soundbites. It will enable Liverpool John Moores graduates to be "prized above others", he says. "It meets the stated needs of high-quality employers and engages them in the process. It happens to reflect Government priorities and it will attract ambitious students to us."
If all this sounds impossibly bumptious, Brown doesn't mind. He wants to challenge the status quo and threaten the current higher education hierarchy, he says. That is partly why he has sought support from some of the biggest companies in the land. With them supporting his £1.5m project, it is difficult for competing universities to rubbish it, he believes.
Mark Newton-Jones, group chief executive of Littlewoods, is particularly enthusiastic about the new initiative. "I have always been critical of higher education in terms of its lack of preparation for the workplace," he says. "It seems obvious that the ingredient lacking is, as Liverpool John Moores calls it, the WoW factor. Ninety per cent of students are ambitious – why else would you try to advance your knowledge and skills if you were not? The university's direction will, I am sure, be adopted by many in the years to come."
Liverpool John Moores has come a long way since Brown took over its leadership in 2000. At that time it was on its knees financially and the new vice chancellor had to devote a lot of time to making it solvent. On two occasions during his tenure – in 2000 and in 2003 – the university was placed on the Higher Education Funding Council's list of institutions at risk of financial failure. Both times it was deemed to be at risk if action wasn't taken urgently.
Now, however, the university is looking secure and Brown has been able to turn his attention to how to distinguish Liverpool John Moores from the competition in a crowded marketplace. He has already won the university plaudits for its management by, for example, abolishing its 380 committees. "You don't need committees," says Brown flatly.
"The next stage is world domination. We reckon we have the ability to plan a new form of university education that could become a global benchmark."
The Government is pleased that the university has come up with its bold new programme. Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, has praised it and last week at the Universities UK conference, John Denham, the Secretary of State, said that teaching students the skills that would be useful at work was vital. "They're what employers are looking for and I think they're an important part of any university education."
Many pre-1992 universities will not be interested in laying on narrowly vocational training for their undergraduates because they pride themselves on educating well-prepared young people and burnishing their transferable skills. But other new universities may well emulate Liverpool John Moores, and parents and students are likely to be very keen on the development.
The Liverpool initiative comes at a time when the issue of graduate employability is rising fast up the political agenda. John Denham's speech to Universities UK last week highlighted the important role that universities could play in helping to upgrade the skills of the workforce.
In reply, Professor Rick Trainor, UUK president and vice chancellor of King's College London, explained that the universities were about to embark on talks with the CBI about two projects. First they will be looking at how higher education can become more accessible to business and how universities can market themselves better to employers. Second, they will try to pin down the skills that employers need.
The groundwork that Liverpool John Moores has done should come in handy here.
Learning for the workplace
Liverpool John Moores' World of Work skills
Self-awareness: students need to identify their strengths and weaknesses, be able to recognise the sort of work to which they would be suited, be able to show drive and energy and be able to present them-selves effectively.
Organisational awareness: students need to know how organisations work, to understand customers' needs, to be professional and be able to plan a course of action in the workplace.
Making things happen: students should know how to persuade and influence, be able to "think outside the box", be adaptable, manage projects, be able to demonstrate entrepreneurial skills and be able to think and act strategically.
Michael Brown: a life in brief
19 May 1946 in Hereford
Father was a commercial traveller, mother a housewife.
Bridgend Boys Grammar Technical School; Nottingham University, where he studied physics for a first degree and a PhD. His doctorate was in low-temperature solid state physics.
Physics lecturer at Loughborough University; general manager of Loughborough Consultants, a company established by the university; deputy director, Leicester Polytechnic; pro vice chancellor, De Montfort University.
Ice cream and his wife's cooking, Sixties music and Queen; dislikes fish or seafood and curries. Does not understand rap.
Wife, Andrea, is a writer; son works in Portland Oregon and daughter for a communications and marketing company in Oxford LHReuse content