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Universities and Corporate Training

February 9, 2011

Today, there was an online debate hosted for the Guardian about graduate employability. The assumption in the question ‘Graduates: Do you feel ready for the world of work?’ suggested something about the function of universities. This got me thinking about the current university system, and the way in which it is going.

I’m currently a graduate student, trying to work my way towards the elusive position of university lecturer (nothing so grand as getting tenure, because I know that I’ll be 40 before I have any kind of job security in this sector!). The lack of security and the difficulty of getting where I want to go doesn’t particularly bother me – I enjoy what I’m doing, and know that even on a low wage I’m going to be a lot happier doing this than office work.

What is frustrating is what education cuts and the increasing assumption that degrees are supposed to provide corporate training are doing to universities as institutions. Already, there is a massively ‘target-based’ culture in departments, and promotion is not based solely on academic ability and teaching skills, but on whether you happen to be working in an area the government has decided is worthwhile.

In addition, students increasingly harass members of faculty over low marks, with the knowledge that if they don’t get at least a 2.1 they will be unable to even think about securing employment. This necessity is coupled with the idea that students are somehow paying for such good grades, so any fault must be with the teaching rather than their own ability.

This isn’t universal, but it is a worrying trend, and one which colleagues in the United States have told me has been commonplace there since the 1970s.

Universities are not corporate training institutions, they are for providing theoretical knowledge and the research skills required for academic study. The disjunction is worrying for both graduates and university staff – but what is really worrying is that rather than the gap being filled, universities will be forced to become training centres for corporations.

Who will this benefit? Not graduates, since they will still have to pay to gain experience that their employers gained through simply working for pay. Not universities, since their purpose will become increasingly split, with theoretical innovation (which drives economies more than I think many recognise) being allowed to survive precariously only on the say-so of the corporate wings of the institutions. This will compromise the intellectual integrity of researchers, who will be under pressure to produce the ‘right’ results or lose funding (a situation which already exists to some extent, although tempered by peer review).

So, only corporate firms benefit – they are manipulating national educational policy in order to increase their profits. Essentially, since the government does not necessarily expect all loans to be paid back, they are ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent, not improving the nation’s intellectual capital, its cultural and scientific reputation, but instead training employees for companies who then go out of their way to avoid as much tax as possible. This channels money out of the uk economy and into the pockets of executives.

Not really a sound basis for education or employment policy.

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