Universities and a vocational economy: why we should rethink HE's role
The debate around Lord Glasman's call for a 'vocational economy' highlights a need for universities need to be more articulate about their effects, says GuildHE's Andy Westwood.
Lord Glasman's New Statesman article has generated mass headlines and commentary on Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party – in his words "no strategy, no narrative and little energy". Glasman points to a series of radical policies that Miliband should adopt if he wants a better reception in 2012. One is what he calls the building of a "vocational economy" and the tough choices this demands for higher education policy. He repeats what he said at Labour's Conference last year, namely the shutting down of half of our universities and replacing them with vocational training institutions that will help to revive apprenticeships, skilled jobs and manufacturing. Like many on the left and right, he obviously believes that too many people go to university and that New Labour's obsession with the 50% target came at the expense of vocational education, apprenticeships and craft-based skills.
It was, though, a Conservative government that ended the binary divide between universities and polytechnics two decades ago, creating the biggest expansion in new universities since the Robbins report in the 1960s. In 1997 Labour continued this growth by accepting Ron Dearing's recommendations of at least a 45% participation rate, with an eventual 50% target. The political narratives of social mobility and global economic change lay behind the expansion of both numbers and institutions. But alongside the script lay two deeply fundamentalist beliefs – first that the global knowledge economy demanded increasing numbers of skilled workers and second that building human capital was a better option than interfering in markets or designing industrial policy.
By and large, many in higher education still feel and act in the same way today. More and more, graduates and research are both economic and social goods – and it's not a university's primary role to interfere too much in how or whether they are deployed successfully. But today the sector, the economy and the political debate all look a little different. Mass higher education is no longer affordable on either the Robbins or Dearing models. And yet both politics and economics demand the impact of higher education like never before. The innovation and research strategy puts universities at the heart of the government's plan for growth and, like Glasman, in its hopes for rebalancing the economy.
But for many it's not really up to a university to see that this actually happens in local or national economies – that's usually for others to think about and deliver. Labour and Conservative ministers (and now add Lib Dems) have all thought the same about both education and the economy – that it's not their responsibility to plan how human capital might be utilised. It's understandable (and perhaps convenient) because that has been the economic, market-based orthodoxy of most of the past 30 years – as far back as Robbins's time. Most of the evidence suggests that it still has some validity – graduates still earn more and are significantly more likely to be in work.
But this rather aloof, or at best semi-detached, view of the economy and the role of higher education institutions is increasingly out of date. Universities need to be more active and articulate about their effects and demonstrate clearer, more tangible effects on business, communities and on society as a whole. I'd call it a responsibility of any institution or sector that is and wants to be at the heart of growth. Tim Wilson has a chance to reignite this debate when he publishes his report in a few weeks' time. But in higher education, we all have a responsibility to encourage more innovation, more investment, more mobility, more active and prosperous communities and yes, more people with degrees. Unfortunately, not enough other people readily agree.
Of course, this takes us back to Lord Glasman and why he and others are wrong. Yes we need more emphasis on high-level skills and new types of vocational training. But it won't be achieved by re-establishing a "sheep and goats" system of higher education. Nor will it drive a fairer or possibly any other kind of economic growth. His retro argument misunderstands both the value of innovation and how it happens. Commentators as varied as Alfred Marshall, Eric Von Hippel and Peter Hall all see the effects of bringing different people and skills together and not trying to force them apart. Robert Reich (one of Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown's favourite gurus) describes this interaction as "geeks and shrinks", and emphasises the importance of public institutions in making it happen.
We need institutions that do this too – universities that consciously bring business and other organisations into their day-to-day activity. This drives innovation and value, both in and from, higher education. An era of active, connected and confident higher education that drives and grows economic and social change? A sector that combines high academic scholarship and technical learning – scientists and apprentices, designers and engineers, researchers and teachers – the classroom and the workplace? This can't be achieved by dividing institutions and students into different systems, missions or hierarchies. Nor can it be left to serendipity or to a hands-off, supply-side approach. That orthodoxy no longer rings true, if it ever did in the first place. Andy Westwood is CEO the of GuildHE.