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Open Letter: Why Sir David Bell is Wrong to Smack Down Employability Concerns of University Students

16/05/2013 11:13 BST | Updated 14/07/2013 10:12 BST
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The old order equation of "university degree = well paid job" is well and truly dead.

In response to the death of the old order, university students have started to demand that university courses are tailored towards employability. Read all about about this in the Times (£) here and here.

To my mind these demands are wholly sensible and represent a rational shift in the face of a changing world.

However Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading recently smacked down the employability demands. In a riposte he said that it was vital that academics resisted such pressure in order to protect traditional courses; adding that the demands risk undermining the intellectual integrity of degrees.

With the fullest of respect I wholly disagree with Sir David Bell.

Here's why:

Firstly, university degrees have already been devalued by the sustained crusade to democratise university education. This is pretty simple economics: as successive UK governments have pushed for ever more young people attain a university degree, the supply-and-demand ratio for degrees has gone way, way, way off kilter.

This really gives meaning to the saying that the best intentions can have the most unintended of circumstances.

Secondly, the labour market has changed radically. It has become ever more competitive; with ever more sophisticated skill requirements. Therefore education must change radically.

As US law professor Jon M. Garon said, we need to 'Reshape Legal Education to Match the New Normal.' Just replace the word 'Legal' in the above sentence with your own career choice and you know what I mean.

Thirdly, by focusing on employability we can close the information deficit that exists between education and the real world.

This information deficit is a concern that I have voiced many times before, especially in my series 'Education is Not an Island Entire of Itself.'

In order to ensure a confident transition between education and the labour market, the two worlds need to be aligned informationally - as opposed to the current information asymmetry.

The real world needs to play a role in a young person's education; informing them on what the labour market wants.

In other words: young people need to make informed decisions that allow them to pursue career paths that have a realistic chance of delivering employment. As opposed to the current reality which has seen many young people to choose career paths that have no realistic chance of offering a job. See FT (£) article on 'Teens Aspire to Wrong Jobs.'

Fourthly, by focusing on the employability we can close the skills deficit that exists between education and the real world.

The ongoing skills deficit between education and the real world cause the 'inefficient allocation of young people.'

Young people leave university with plenty of theory and good reading skills, but wholly lacking in the actual doing skills.

As I've said before: 'All theory and no practice makes Jack an unemployable boy.'

Fifthly, to many, university is a sham. For many, no longer is university a place of high order learning. Frankly, many universities have degenerated into piss up villages where students don't actually learn anything apart from picking up drinking skills.

Like Dale J. Stephens of Uncollege said in the March/April edition of Wired Magazine:

'Going to college is meant to be the culmination of 12 years of hard work, determination and study... However any idealism was quickly squashed. For the most part, people weren't there to learn - they were there to party, and hangovers permitting, learn something along the way.'

Sixthly, since universities receive massive public funding that often exceeds 50% of their budget, they owe it to prepare young people in the best way possible for the labour market.

Seventh, the cries for employability are a symptom of something fundamentally wrong in the current university model.

Yes I wholly agree with Sir David Bell's wishes to guard the intellectual integrity of university. But to do so we need to properly regard university and not see at is the only career choice; but rather a place one chooses to attend after having made a genuine and sincere decision.

For some reason society has come to regard university as some sort of panacea. This is fine, but the reality is that not everyone can go to university.

This is the tyranny of the status quo.

We need to smash the status quo and create a divide between the traditional university model and create a new university model that encourages employability and employer led learning.

Having an Oxford degree naturally means employability. However having a degree from a lesser university militates towards unemployability.

As Stephen J. Stephens said in an interview with Forbes:

'I think a degree from Harvard is still highly valued -- but the reality is that most people don't go to Harvard. Most people, like me, go to mid-tier schools without any distinguishing features. For us, there is no brand value of your degree and you're likely going to be competing for jobs against others who have similarly meaningless degrees. If you want to get a job, create a portfolio and start your own projects. You need to prove that you're more than a piece of paper.'

This is part of a wider problem of esteem. We need to have a plurality of career choices. We should have the traditional university model for Oxbridge and the Red Brick universities; thereby meeting the wishes of Sir David Bell.

To meet the wishes of the concerned university students we need to create a spin-off university model that is less academic/theory focused but which meets the wider needs of the less able but still talented.

As it was said in a letter to the Times:

'Cognitive thinking and deductive reasoning should not get more attention than other kinds of intelligence.'

This plurality of career choices issue also requires us to regard the various choices as equal. We also need to value apprenticeships and technical colleges.

So there it is. My explanation on why Sir David Bell is wrong to smack down British students' cries for employability - with the qualification on why he is right to feel that something isn't right with the status quo.

To conclude I want to quote a fellow Huff Post blogger Roger Maidment and say: 'Learn Then Earn - Unis Must Prepare Work-Ready Graduates!'