And more skills


Apologies for leaving you on tenterhooks (not!) for the next exciting instalment, but the realities of various deadlines intervened before I rushed off around dawn last Wednesday to fly to Berlin for the Law & Society Association/Research Committee for Sociology of Law mega-bash aka conference.

I had planned to post a blog or two from Berlin, just to display my international credentials, but after watching a couple of the Americans feverishly blogging away (and hearing of another who had been barking instructions at some poor research assistant in the States who was clearly providing research back-up for his/her master’s blog). I rather went off the idea. Anyway this was my first trip to Berlin, and what makes you think I’d stay in and blog when there’s a whole city famed for its bars – erm, I mean culture – to be explored!

But now I’m back, and its back to thinking about a post-Leitch world of higher education.

What probably interests me most about Leitch and World Class Skills is the way in which it signals another step in the potential shift in focus and in the power-relations that shape the world of higher education. For the present government a general nod, or even a larger commitment, to knowledge transfer will no longer be enough:

“all HE institutions need to grow their capacity to engage on a large scale with employers, in ways adapted to their different profiles and missions. Those activities should share equal status with research and academic activities. ‘Business facing’ should be a description with which any higher education institution feels comfortable”
– World Class Skills, para 3.56

Whether this shift will in fact deliver the skills outcomes the economy needs may prove to be a moot point. World Class Skills potentially puts a lot of faith in the rationality of markets, and the ability of a demand-led approach to deliver. We are not operating in a planned economy; the fact that employers might want an extra 100,000 science and engineering graduates does not mean universities will provide them, not least because that demand may not have translated well to the traditional (18-20 year old) supply-side of the equation. World Class Skills recognises that, if this gap is to be closed, it will be increasingly by “upskilling” and retraining those already in the workplace. Fortuitously, in a sense, this coincides with demographic changes that will see a substantial decline in the 18-20 population by 2020 (though the actual effects of these changes are still debatable). Universities therefore are aware of the need to develop new markets. The delivery of higher level skills and more work-based learning is clearly one avenue, and one worth an estimated £5 billion at that. But for this change to be effective will require both high quality manpower forecasting and planning by industry, and a greater degree of market ‘savvy’ and responsiveness from the higher education sector.

In the move to a demand-led model, the government makes much of its intention to increase the “purchasing power” of employers. It also makes it abundantly clear that most of the growth in training will be funded by those same employers: they may be able to get more of what they want, but they will have to pay for it. This may not be a problem for the top end of the market (whether that be the major multi-national business or the global law firm), who are already using opportunities created by the liberalisation of the education market to build increasingly tailored academic and vocational provision. But the bespoke approach will not work for much of the market, whether in law or anything else. In this context the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are likely to drive much of the agenda. Essentially employer-led organisations, they act as brokers between employers and training providers, and have been empowered to create and control the National Occupational Standards which contain the knowledge and skills outcomes prescribed, at various levels of achievement, for a growing range of occupations. They have money and market information, can claim to speak on behalf of the world of work, and, while they cannot directly impinge on the autonomy of universities to develop and validate their own awards, they do have the power to ‘endorse’ higher education programmes which satisfy their professional and occupational standards.

However, despite some obvious advantages, the sectoral approach adopted by the SSC model overall could also prove to be a rather blunt instrument. Concerns, for example, have been expressed in some areas (not the “justice sector” so far as I am aware) that the SSCs may be open to capture by particular sub-sectors or certain key employers. This may well put to the test the assumption that what is in the (perceived) interests of employers will be in the interests of the economy as a whole. Furthermore, for both the SSCs and educational providers, matching needs and provision, particularly in respect of less obviously vocational courses and disciplines is also likely to be difficult. For example, Skills for Justice is the SSC for the “justice sector”, and yet much of its work, particularly in respect of the criminal justice system is not particularly served by the law schools. Similarly, for the law schools, the fact that a potentially significant number of their graduates will not work in the “justice sector” begs the question as to which other SSCs they should also be talking to. At the least it seems that there are genuine coordination and information gaps to be addressed.

This in fact is but one branch of a much bigger issue implicitly posed by World Class Skills: the extent to which the employment agenda represents a potentially fundamental structural challenge to traditional university disciplines and the construction of higher education as a distinct and distinctive branch of learning.

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