Universities have to train students for jobs.

Too many people, policymakers included, hold fast to the sentiment of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 1873 work, The Idea of a University. He portrayed higher education as the disinterested pursuit of truth, and the cultivation of the mind.

So, for example, many worry that judging universities by the jobs their graduates go on to do (as proposed in the new Teaching Excellence Framework) will create an overly instrumentalist, and therefore debased, form of higher education.

There is more than a whiff of snobbery about this view. Only students who don’t need jobs can afford an education that does not prepare them for the workplace, and very few are in this position. “Getting a good job” is consistently given in student surveys as the main motivation for going to university, and students expect a professional degree to prepare them for their chosen profession. This is as true in law, engineering, architecture and medicine as it is in nursing, education or management.

Tipping the balance towards the jobs market

Is there a risk that the balance could tip too far towards employability? Lord Dearing’s report in 1997 urged increased collaboration between universities and industry, and successive governments have created policy to incentivise this.

These initiatives have had some success. The Higher Education Innovation Fund, for example, has enabled universities to engage with business on a daily basis. Money from the Catalyst fund (created by the Higher Education Funding Council for England) has funded projects like the Siemens Engineering Hub at the University of Lincoln and the Unipart “Faculty on the Factory Floor” at Coventry University. Despite this, employers still complain that they can’t recruit graduates with the skills they need.

The government’s response has been to give employers more say. Most recently this has been achieved by beefing up the apprenticeship model, where the training element is “employer-led”. This has been extended to include training at degree level and the government has created a target for three million new apprenticeships by 2020, financed by a levy on employers who have a wage bill of more than £3m. Public sector organisations such as schools and hospitals are included in the levy, and employers can offset its cost by offering apprenticeships to their own staff.  - Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance in The Guardian.

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