“If universities create comprehensive, strategic relationships with businesses of all sizes, our students will feel ready to hit the ground running in the world of work.”
In his pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, ‘Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education’ Higher Education Minister David Willetts is right to back the expansion of higher education. Coming in at a weighty 75 pages, the report is certainly longer – and shows a more rounded appreciation of higher education – than Lord Browne’s concise but narrow view of our university system.
As we celebrate 50 years of Lord Lionel Robbins’ ground-breaking review of higher education, his work still stands the test of time. In my eyes the Robbins Review remains head and shoulders above the reviews of higher education which followed it, for its rigour as for its thoughtfulness – and for the author’s ability to overlook immediate political expediency.
Though I find myself agreeing with much of Willetts’ argument over the push for university expansion and better teaching for a growing young population after 2020, are the conditions really in place for anything to change? The absence of any legislation to accompany the 2012 funding reforms was certainly a missed opportunity for the government to realise the changes the minister would like to see.
At the core of Willetts’ vision is a better understanding of what motivates students to enter, and then complete, higher education. The pamphlet points out the compelling evidence that the graduate premium remains above £100,000: there is a clear economic advantage for those that have benefitted from a university education. But to believe that application to higher education is related to projected earnings alone misunderstands student motivations and takes an unnecessarily narrow view of the role universities can play.
Most students, as well as considering future salaries, also care about the sort of job they will get, the extent to which they can contribute to their organisation, and how their development as a person can contribute toward their working life after graduation.
The last few years have seen an acceleration in universities’ work to aid graduate employability. A key component of this effort is the provision of work experience and student placements, and NCUB is carrying out research to better understand what kind of placements are offered by universities, where, and with which partners.
But we need to ensure that relationships between universities and businesses are fostered beyond simple work experience placement schemes. Last week, Sir Andrew Witty called for a “single point of entry” for businesses to engage with universities, and this will help.
If universities create comprehensive, strategic relationships with businesses of all sizes, our students will feel ready to hit the ground running in the world of work – and they will make Willetts’ ambition of a significant expansion in our university population all the more likely too.
Aaron Porter is Director of External Affairs at the National Centre for Universities and Business.