A little learning is a dangerous thing? The role of universities

I’m normally more an Independent man (all puns intended), but – as professors reminded me during my own days in academia – reading around the list rather than down it can sometimes pay dividends. And if you’re going to be informed, why not be informed about more than the one thing? Glancing unaccustomedly through the pages of The Pink ‘Un, I was refreshed to find an article – Question of relevance must be addressed – in their Soapbox column that posed a long overdue question or three:

What are business schools for? What do they do? How can they best serve the needs of business and society?”

All good questions, I thought, although it seemed perhaps a little unfair to single out business schools. (We can’t all be managers, and it wouldn’t help if we could.) When it comes to purpose, relationship to both society and the economy, and to upholding their end of some very nebulous psychological contracts, most of higher education could do with clearing its throat and piping up in words of one syllable. The Guardian’s Q&A best bits: Marketing higher education during times of change (first published this April) was an interesting Googlefind, but not an inspiring one in this context.

Against a backdrop of trebled fees, a truly drastic reworking of university funding (one of the issues that has truly stayed below the radar over the last 18 months – the public expects Saffron and Benjamin to flourish at a ‘respectable’ University, but has no interest in how the institution keeps the wolves from the door), you’d think this would be a good time to drop the marketing rhetoric and focus on the important relationships HE institutions have with their students (sorry, customers) and with the society and economy that benefit from their output (ie the rest of us).

Putting myself in a hypothetical 18 year old’s shoes, there are plenty of things I didn’t want to read. The article duly printed several of them:

  • The emotional attractiveness of the brand proposition […]
  • […] tailor communication with these stakeholder groups to ensure a wider appreciation of […]
  • […] consider the whole student journey and experience […]
  • […]strong internal communications are key to consistency in communicating distinctiveness […]

All of these phrases – like a recent memo from a University’s Director of Communications forwarded (with gales of ironic laughter) from a friend – were the work of people who draw salaries on the basis of their ability to communicate knowledgeably and clearly with their customer audiences. Perhaps, in reality TV style, we should blame it all on the edit – although it is possible everyone did have a bad day simultaneously. But there’s a £27000 elephant in the corner that no-one seems to be able to see, possibly because they’re trying to shoo it under an equally invisible magic carpet that will take every 18 year old soaring to personal and financial heights if they just step onboard. Right?

The FT article lies the blame at the doors of business schools’ fixation with research. From my own experience of HE and the lure of research, it seems strange that a further underlying cause hasn’t been diagnosed. Academics of all disciplines pen abstract pieces for peer-reviewed journals rather than publishing practical advice because that’s how research funding applications are measured and evaluated: academics pursue research because that refreshes the coffers their host institutions pay them from. Morgen Witzel, the piece’s author, makes some fine points but seems to have overlooked things you’d hope someone from a business school would spot: reward and recognition, the bias of performance management affecting actual subsequent behaviours. (One University I worked for spent more on compiling research funding applications than it received from submitting them – a situation that should clearly signal a systemic problem?)

This research funding used to be balanced by funding for teaching, but – and here’s another big topic currently sliding under a rug – cuts of 40% to the higher education budget over four years were announced in the spending review on 20 October 2010. The future financing of most university teaching will be from students’ increased fees (part of the argument being the increased earnings and prosperity a degree will bring), rather than public funds (thereby presumably doing away with the argument that we all benefit from a society with more graduates in it?). Were it not for comments on the school curriculum that probably send a suitably subdued frisson shimmering through the starched underskirts of a sensibly-shoed army of ‘old-fashioned teachers’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that education had gone all Web 2.0 on us and fully embraced individualisation as the great way forward.

And yet … the earliest figures for 2011 suggest that applications are falling while graduate employment remains a thorny topic. Just like employers have a psychological contract with their staff, universities have one with their students, albeit one brokered on their behalf by The Treasury: “get yourself £30,000 in debt to study with us for three years, and you might earn more.” As this has recently been revised from “get yourself £9,000 in debt and you very probably will earn more”, I’m not clear why anyone’s surprised by a shortfall in demand: the offer gives less return for three times the price. I’m reminded of banking, where the return for investors is so dismal that keeping it under the mattress becomes ever more attractive. (The now retired blogger, The HRD, wrote a fine piece about how the future sometimes seems to be eroding before our eyes – while Flipchart Fairytales take on the same topic saw the future more as something that’s being incrementally stolen, despite earlier promises.)

Against this backdrop, I’m reminded of the recent HR Unconference (see our write-up), where the work of university’s in increasing the employability of their students (even at post-graduate level) was met with a fair bit of scepticism and derision. While my own experience of University Careers Departments was equally dismal – “Oh, so you don’t fancy teaching then?” more or less covered their entire input – I also recognise that Universities make a nice, big sitting target for others, a point not lost of the authors of the radicaled blog:

As in the 1970s, when industrialists declared ‘I blame the teachers’ for the unemployment they were themselves creating, schools and colleges are being blamed for an employment crisis not of their making.

Fortunately, the vast majority of ‘ordinary’ youngsters will not riot; but without economic policies that ensure reasonable employment prospects and at least a sniff of prosperity, will they continue to cram for exams when they have little chance of getting into the top universities? Or will they be tempted by cut-price ‘apprentice-degrees’ in FE or dodgier training agencies?”

Sitting back a little for the higher educational fry, I have a sense that several traditional bargains have come unstruck. I accept Richard Sennett’s point that graduate education has expanded in recent years far faster than the percentage of jobs that actually require a degree level qualification (although they are now being used as additional filters on the CV hoppers of the recruitment consultants), but to apply such a blunt economic method to scaling back applications and participation seems shamelessly crude.

And while I’m happy to acknowledge that I firmly believe that a university education is – and should be – about far more than a preparation for an above-average salary, I can’t see why industry and business are being spared (through tax revenues) their input into the education of the next generation of the workforce. (I do realise they’re not actually getting a tax cut, but the ‘our taxes pay for this’ argument won’t work any longer either – not least because, by and large, they won’t be) The nation’s employers seem to want to a) have the talent pool refreshed at the talent pool’s expense, b) frequently proclaim both the inappropriate skills of graduates in general and their over-qualification as individuals, c) shy away from truly engaging universities in explaining the curriculum that would produce graduates they do want.

The HR Boutique blog also picked up on this point recently:

We can also talk about the role of the business in all this. Spotting talent and helping it develop should be today’s companies priority. Clawback clauses or not, but big organizations should help the gifted and deserving to augment their knowledge as they will be entering the labor market in four to five years. When companies talk about CSR, they often talk about hugging the pandas and planting trees. Helping promising youngsters get to where they want to be in terms of their academic and career aspirations is a CSR missions as important: it is doing the right thing and the smart thing at the same time. Very soon they will lead your companies.”

The argument with students is that a requirement for greater individual investment will focus minds on intelligent decisions and choices. The argument with employers seems to be that they should be spared from making any investment but can carry on with the same expectations of a return.

As I have an arts degree, spreadsheets aren’t my forte, but haven’t we got that badly out of balance? I can’t quite see the CBI taking to Parliament Square to protest their own point of view of HE – they wouldn’t be able to trust their Blackberry MMS system to co-ordinate each other – but how about they play by the rules of the game?

Get 100 leading business people, fund a peer-reviewed journal and publish scholarly reviews (with vetting of all research data) of what all the stakeholder groups believe education is for, who benefits in what ways, and an equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of the process among relevant parties? The universities that get published most demonstrate their commitment to the future of their sector, and get more funding. A few rounds of the cycle, and the purpose of higher education could be a well-researched field that genuinely informs public policy and debate. Just a thought …

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