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A senior civil servant’s recent off-duty comment, about the role of higher education, sent shivers down my spine.  “I can’t see why the tax-payer should pay for young people to study English or History.  Graduates in such disciplines acquire no useful economic skills.”
He was not alone.  In 2009, John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Now there’s a mouthful!) in the Brown government stated that Universities should offer more vocational degrees because the current system is not supplying students or employers with the skills they need.   “It is not clear that our publicly funded degrees offer the range and balance of qualifications which students and the wider economy require.”
Many occupations and, indeed, professions, nursing, physiotherapy, accountancy, fashion, which would formerly have trained entrants ‘on the job’ now seek ready trained graduates.  Growth areas, especially in the service industries such as retail and leisure and sport management, also seek graduates, although often expect them to enter work at a basic level for which degree-level training seems scarcely necessary.  Such degrees, often intensely specialised, focus on a very narrow range of skills.
These tendencies and a desire to park as many young people as possible in ‘education and training’, irrespective of its usefulness, have seen a massive boost in the numbers entering higher education.
At the same time, the market paradigm is increasingly dominating thinking in all levels of education, where customer satisfaction, income generation and public relations have become the order of the day.  Successive governments have encouraged university administrators to share this flawed vision of the purpose of education.
The result, suggests Andrew Hook, emeritus professor of English literature at Glasgow University, is a decline in the teaching of the humanities in the UK as well as in the USA.  He quotes the current president of the American Council of Learned Societies recently said: ‘College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person’.
There is, consequently, an increasing divide among our universities.  The elite institutions continue to recruit from a limited social cohort, place a high tariff on entry and their graduates continue to dominate the socially powerful, high-wage professions.
The more vocationally oriented Universities accept students with low-grade qualifications for whom drop-out rates are then in inverse proportion to entry qualifications and whose often low-levels of higher order literacy and cultural skills are a barrier to the social mobility and promotion prospects once perceived as the norm for university graduates.
There is a debate to be had, in Scotland as well as in England, about the purpose of higher education which should also have its echoes in respect of schools.
A major function of any education system is preparation for work.  Whether a young person is specialising in engineering, medicine, languages, sociology, or, yes, English literature or history, there should be a clear understanding that such skills should ultimately be put to good economic use.
Universities, including those specialising in vocational courses, should also however produce literate, culturally aware graduates with a wide research and enquiry skills.  We sacrifice the traditional breadth of Scottish degrees at our peril.
As we head towards the referendum some leadership from the Scottish government is needed.  If the price of economic growth is the triumph of the philistines, it is too dear to pay.  We require a restatement of some very Scottish enlightenment thinking, a vision of learning which had among its several purposes economic utility but which also values learning for learning’s sake and prioritises the development of human, social and cultural awareness as well as vocational skills.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 2 December 2013

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