What is the purpose of education? In her article, Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education, Eleanor Roosevelt began by saying, “This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.” She was right, and no doubt if we were to survey universities with this question — both students and staff —, we would come up with huge array of answers. The purpose of education is to pass a body of knowledge on from one generation to the next. No, the purpose of education is to equip people to be able to think critically and analytically. No, the purpose of education is to equip people with the skills and knowledge that will help them to succeed in the world of work.
No doubt 101 other answers could be given, and many of them looking at first glance to be at odds with one another. Yet although the different answers given to the question can seem to be at variance, there is something of a false dichotomy occurring. It is obvious that some degrees, such as those in the liberal arts, are by and large unlikely to be connected directly with a career. Yet does this mean they fail to pass on the kind of skills that make a person employable? Of course not. Likewise, it is obvious that other degrees, such as chemical engineering, are specifically designed to be linked with a particular career. But does this mean that they fail to teach critical thinking and analytical skills? Again, of course not.
There is actually more commonality running though most, if not all, definitions of the purpose of education than first meets the eye. Why would you want to pass a body of knowledge on from one generation to the next? Why would you want to equip people to be able to think? Why would you want to equip people with the skills and knowledge that will help them to succeed in the world of work? The answer to all these questions is that by doing so, you are hoping to improve lives — the lives of individuals, of communities and of society.
“Education for education sake”, and “education for careers sake”, although very different in their priorities, both align with the overarching concept of improving lives through education. And whilst most universities will cater for both approaches, albeit to a greater or lesser extent, there has undoubtedly been a shift in recent years towards the second approach. There are two important factors contributing to this shift.
Firstly, there are increasing calls for higher education to contribute more directly to the prosperity of the economy. For instance, in an article for The Economist last year, Liz Shutt, policy director at University Alliance, claimed that “We need to develop skills in interaction with business and in preparing students for the work world.” This is in line with the Government’s productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations, which also cited the need for universities to contribute more to economic growth by building better and more direct links with industry.
The second issue is tuition fees. Put simply, the introduction of a student-payer system for attending university has had the consequence of focusing the minds of students far more on whether the course they do is likely to lead them to employment and how well that employment will pay. For instance, the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2015, found that the number of students who began researching their career options by the end of the first year was 48% — the highest they had ever recorded. Another indicator of the shift in attitudes is shown by the fact that degrees which tend to be associated with higher income careers, such as business and administrative studies and science-based subjects have, according to HESA, grown hugely in popularity in recent years.
We can summarise these two issues in two words: Productivity and Employability. Universities are being expected to make a greater contribution to productivity by aligning more with the needs of industry and the economy. At the same time, they are also being expected to improve the employability level of their graduates, with this expectation coming not just from the Government, but also from the students themselves.
The issues of productivity and employability are in reality two sides of the same coin. The university that establishes better connections with industry and takes steps to align its curriculum with the needs of the economy, is likely to be the university with the highest rates of employability in graduate jobs. Likewise, the university that takes steps to increase student employability, is also likely to be the university that contributes most effectively to productivity.
None of this is to take away from the important point that education is a good in itself, even where it doesn’t necessarily lead to a directly associated career. Nevertheless, universities need to be realistic and recognise that the twin pressures of the call to improve productivity and employability cannot be ignored.
This being the case, here are a couple of important questions: if your university is being called on to improve productivity by supplying skilled graduates into the workforce, how are you ensuring that your courses align with the needs of the workforce? Or to look at the picture from a slightly different angle, if your university is being called on to improve student employability, how much emphasis are you placing on the need to direct them to sustainable careers?
Our aim in this series is to provide some workable suggestions to these questions. In Parts 2 and 3, we will be concentrating on the question of productivity, firstly from a regional perspective, and then in terms of the national economy. In Parts 4 and 5, we’ll be turning to the question of employability, firstly asking how universities can provide students with better information in order to make better choices, and secondly by turning to the issue of transferrable skills (which incidentally applies just as much to the “education for education sake” approach as it does to the “education for careers sake” approach). In the final part, we’ll tie all these issues together to show how through the use of good market intelligence, your university can improve productivity and employability, and so better achieve the overarching goal of education: improving lives.
For more information on how we can help your university improve productivity and employability, contact Jamie Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org.