The government presents its white paper on the future of higher education as a radical new policy direction. Yet the paper is designed to serve the same two objectives that have governed higher education policy for the past quarter of a century. One is to strengthen the role of students as consumers whose preferences determine the course of higher education provision. The other is to increase the focus of higher education on preparing students for graduate employment.
The contradiction should be obvious. Employers do not treat employees as consumers. Spending three years as a consumer will not prepare you for the world of employment. It is not the content of our degree programmes that we should be changing in order to improve our students' employability. It is the role we expect our students to play within our institutions of higher education.
Consumerism itself obscures this point. For this objective requires us to measure graduate employability and make it known to the next wave of consumers. All that can be measured and made known fast enough are earnings in the first few years after graduation. So universities are encouraged to teach the current practices of the white collar workplace. But our undergraduate students can expect to work for up to fifty years before they retire. Will they be well prepared for this by learning the quotidian routines of today's employees?
Given how dramatically the graduate workplace has changed over the past two decades, this seems very unlikely. What will serve students far better is spending these three years intensively developing their skills of researching, understanding, criticising, rethinking, writing and discussing, individually and together with colleagues. These are the hardy perennials that will see them through their working lives. These are the skills that academic study develops. The more time spent honing these skills, the better. This time should not be given over to learning office techniques attractive to first employers.
What is more, this consumerism is anyway apt to hamper graduates' ability to flourish in those first jobs. For after spending three years in an environment geared to ensuring your satisfaction, the world of work can only come as a major culture shock. All of a sudden, your work schedule cannot be negotiated around your other employments and your social life, your deadlines really are deadlines, you cannot crib your work from handouts made available to you in a variety of media, and, most importantly, your managers are not beholden to your subjective assessment of how they ought to be doing their job. It is hardly surprising if some employers consider their graduate recruits to be in need of retraining.
If the government is serious about graduate employability, then it should abandon the consumerist objective. Students should be seen as apprentices in their disciplines, through which they develop those hardy perennial skills. Academics should be recognised as the experts training these apprentices in these skills. It should be accepted that this involves regularly stretching the students beyond their comfort zones, an experience they might not all enjoy. Above all, it requires accepting that student enjoyment is not a reliable indicator of quality of education.
Under the name Campaign For The Public University (publicuniversity.org.uk), a group of academics and students are now soliciting contributions for an alternative white paper, to be published in September when the government's consultation period ends. That alternative should present a genuinely new policy direction. It looks set to recommend abandoning the consumerist objective in order to put student interests at the heart of higher education. Following this recommendation should also enhance graduate employability.
Jonathan Webber is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University