A government skills advisor has warned that a higher education system that has become increasingly obsessed with professional outcomes is “neither fair nor efficient”.
Baroness Woolf said such a shift was “incredibly one-dimensional” and that apprenticeships needed to be revived as a real alternative in the UK.
Ms Woolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, and adviser to the British government on standards and skills upgrading policy, outlined what she called the “vocational education paradox” in a speech at the London School. Economics on December 7th.
“Higher education is increasingly being viewed either in terms of its direct contribution to people’s wages in today’s labor market, or, in the case of research, in terms of long-term benefits to society,” she said.
These are not bad things, and why wouldn’t one want oneself or one’s children to do better in life? But it is a profound shift toward a single-purpose vision of higher education.”
She said John Henry Newman’s idea of the university’s theory that institutions should educate the mind has fizzled out — for better and for worse, as politicians of all parties seem to place all their attention on results-based achievement.
The cross-bench colleague said vocational education is winning out within universities — and this is supported by parents, government and students, who mostly study vocational subjects they think will be most relevant to them in the job market.
Meanwhile, other methods of vocational education are “disintegrating” around the world, she said, leading to degrees increasingly being seen as a gateway qualification to the modern job market. Baroness Wolfe added that this is an “incredibly one-dimensional way of selecting people”, which is “neither fair nor efficient”.
She added that universities are costly to individuals and society, and come at the expense of employers because they will end up hiring a lot of people who lack the right kind of skills they need.
Baroness Wolfe said that politicians often proclaim their ambition to make vocational and academic education in school equal, but in an environment that is always competitive, that will not succeed.
“If what we’re trying to do is create environments that develop vocational and technical skills in a really good way, then what you have to do is set up something that is a clear alternative with its own prestige hierarchy and doesn’t claim to be like a university. You have to create an alternative set of options, with their status and hierarchy.
One option proposed by Lady Wolfe would be to create highly selective and specialized art institutions for more mature students, while another would be through the route of apprenticeship.
“Because it does not pretend to be just another form of education, it can, and in many cases, provide an alternative to an increasingly hierarchical system of higher education,” she said.
“This can be exceptionally successful preparation for life and career because it’s not a university, it’s something completely different.”