Posted by: Gillian | July 31, 2012

Good and bad universities

A recent article in the Telegraph suggests young people are studying subjects no employer wants at bad universities. This begs at least three questions:

  1. Are employers asking universities for short-term skills or sustainably educated members of the workforce ?
  2. What is a bad university?
  3. Do good universities only offer subjects with immediate employment prospects?

1 Skills or education

When employers complain about an illiterate, innumerate workforce, the blame should be placed much earlier in the system than with universities .  Universities may find themselves forced into remedial teaching of essay writing and basic statistics but that is no more their core role than it is the core role of an eventual employer.  At a higher level, transferable skills (e.g. research) or subject specific skills are part of university education but it is a struggle to think of any that cannot be acquired outside in the workplace or independently.  So what makes a university different?

University is not only about skills acquisition, competencies and learning outcomes; it is about being part of a learning community, seeking new information, testing ideas with others, selecting and fitting knowledge to new purposes.  This need not be ‘within the city walls’ as many universities used to require but, given the requisite technical and social skills, can be within a widely dispersed global community.  The important differentiator is not the geography but the attitude: education includes skills; skills alone are not education.  The two tie together in the lifelong learning agenda where the aim is to keep adults engaged with higher education in some – usually discontinuous – form literally “for life”.

2 Bad universities

In countries such as the UK with a robust central accreditation system for institutions allowed to use the word ‘university’, there should be no such thing as a bad university as all institutions have to meet a range of minimum teaching, content, assessment and management standards. Still, we all know the social pressure to attend some universities in preference to others and many know that a course in (say) law is more highly regarded from university X than university Y. There are also universities that excel and are first choice in one subject area but are ‘last resort’ for others.  There is also the persistent belief that universities that offer predominantly vocational degrees rather than traditional humanities and pure research are somehow, if not ‘bad’, at least not ‘good’ universities.  Whether or not such different institutions should both be called ‘university’ is a different matter: they are all universities and they are subject to the same accreditation procedures.

As universities merge and take over previously independent colleges, it can be hard to decide which reputation is the more important: do standards rise within a particular programme or do the specialists that attracted people to the independent college all leave, taking the value of the programme with them?  Further confusion is caused by ‘good’ research universities that subcontract some courses to for-profit entities (both on- and off -campus).  Do such deals improve the perceptions of the for-profit or decrease the value of the ‘good’ university or do we trust the boards of both to making a deal that brings the best of both together for the benefit of students?

3 Employment prospects

Individual university marketing campaigns, league tables, national and international economic reports all publish employment figures related to particular qualifications and at a national level these can be extremely important: how many tens of thousands of psychologists does Spain really need, for example?  Crude percentages of graduates of a particular course in employment one year later are, however, of little value.  Such figures need to be compared across institutions in very similar subject areas as well as over decades and against other subject areas.  A degree in Modern History may have less obvious career routes than Computer Science but a glance at most computing science syllabi will show some programming languages have all but disappeared from them over the last decade – and that cannot be unconnected to the high level of skill-based continuing education among computer scientists.  University does not get ‘done’ once and for all no matter what your subject discipline.

At an individual level, however, the social context becomes more important. To say that one goes to university at 18 because otherwise it is impossible to get a good job in later life is simply wrong: there are many flexible routes into higher education and there are now more non-traditional UK university students than there are traditional 18-21 year-olds.  On the other hand, being part of a learning community as set out above is a social construct and cultivating that mindset as part of a rite of passage is a key benefit of traditionally-timed education.   Many an employer says they wants graduates who can think, are flexible and have a team-focused work ethic but that job-specific skills are best taught by the employer themselves.  Yet finances, family circumstances and personal preference mean that the traditional higher education pathway is not right for very many people. Learning accountancy within one of the major accountancy firms and ‘topping up’ to a degree later or working on a checkout and doing NVQs with an aim to eventually taking an MBA simply alters the order in which a rounded education is acquired.

What matters

By taking a longer term, more holistic view of higher education, what matters is not so much whether a university is good or bad but the ways in which the sector engages with employers and adults to make learning possible.  What they offer and how they offer it may not lead to immediate employability but it should develop inquiry, creativity and a love of learning.  The major gap in the market, it seems to me, is not between traditional university students and employment requirements, but between those who have lost interest in learning and the opportunities that are available to continue learning in some form.


  1. Well-written article!

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