It’s time to put an end to short-termism in higher education.
We all know politicians like change. At a recent meeting between scientists and a government department (which will remain nameless), the department’s representatives arrived having not done their homework, failed to fully understand the matter under discussion, and yet still managed to make a policy decision afterwards. We should expect better of our leaders.
When I surveyed my colleagues about their expectations of future leaders, the largest single theme was that they were too short-termist. Politicians always want to be seen to be doing something. In contrast, our universities are sometimes criticised for being old-fashioned and slow to react.
My year at school was among the first to take half GCSEs, study for AS Levels, pay higher university fees and take out loans instead of pocketing grants. Were these positive changes to our higher education system? We haven’t waited long enough to find out.
Nevertheless, politicians have decided to change things again: academies and free schools shift the route the pupils take into university, and modular A Levels are already at an end. With the goalposts constantly on the move, it is difficult for universities to start first year courses at an appropriate level, let alone correctly assess applicants.
I am often asked why our universities fail to grapple with long term skills and employability issues. Of course it’s true that the skills that employers are crying out for – numeracy, literacy, critical thinking – can still be found in ‘old fashioned’ courses such as economics, engineering, history, law or mathematics. The tools for work are not solely found in vocational training, such as degrees in tourism management. Courses which offer better employability for the graduate are, by their nature, vocational.
But there has been a sad decline in vocational courses in favour of academic university degrees, driven by politicians (and vice-chancellors) who presumably thought it was a good idea at the time, and who are now wondering why there is a skills shortage. To tackle this, we need a return to true vocational higher education rather than pseudo-academic pathways taught in lecture theatres which may prove to be of little use in the world of work.
Even the research councils are not immune from the curse of short-term thinking. Research breakthroughs are hard to predict: think of penicillin, or the discovery of Richard III’s body. It is also hard to predict the impact of such discoveries. Differential geometry was an important research topic decades before Einstein found he needed it to describe his theory of General Relativity, and RSA encryption was discovered years before the internet needed secure banking.
Laboratories take time and money to set up, and a critical mass of good researchers and experience takes years to accumulate. Yet in its 2010 strategic plan the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council includes an admission that it will be “maintaining funding for high priority research at the expense of the breadth and volume of research”.
And presumably these priorities will then change, with the risk of wasting the expertise accumulated.
Balancing the need for change with the risk of change requires serious thought. With something as big and complex as the future of the UK workforce, we can’t afford to take ill considered gambles. We should require long-term thinking from our university and political leaders, not knee-jerk change on a popular whim.
Dr Ed Brambley is a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Cambridge and a member of NCUB’s ’50 under 30′ steering group. The views represented above are personal, and not necessarily those of his institution or the NCUB.