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Higher education is more than vocational training

Should universities stick to higher learning and leave on-the-job training to employers?

Universities Australia recently announced a joint initiative with business groups to get graduates “work ready” through vocational workplace training. This is to be welcomed but it is also to be questioned – about what it should mean in practice, how it should be applied, and what the respective roles of universities and employers should be in providing it.

Some years back I was at a meeting about higher education and employment, attended by a number of employer representatives. I recall one employer, who had spent the whole of his long career in the motor industry, remarking:

Over the years, I’ve been responsible for hiring something in the order of 3000 graduates for the different companies I’ve been part of. And what I was wanting and expecting, of each one of them, was that by the time they left the job I had recruited them for, they would have changed the nature of that job.

Rather than being concerned with how recruits would fit into existing organisational arrangements and master existing ways of doing things, here was an employer who expected graduates to change existing arrangements and ways of working. Rather than being concerned about whether the graduates had the right kinds of skills and competencies, the point this employer was making was that he didn’t know what skills and competencies his workers would need in a few years’ time. The very point of hiring graduates was that you hoped to get people who would themselves be able to work out what was required and be capable of delivering it.

Of course, starting any job requires some work-specific knowledge and capability. This may be merely working out how to fill in time sheets and make holiday arrangements or matters more technical. When recruiting staff, graduate or non-graduate, employers have a responsibility to provide suitable induction and training.

The responsibilities of higher education are different. They are about preparing for work in the long term, in different jobs and, quite possibly, in different sectors. This is preparation for work in a different world, for work that is going to require learning over a lifetime, not just the first few weeks of that first job after graduation.

The Universities Australia initiative sets out a perfectly reasonable set of objectives for the ways in which higher education can help prepare students for their working lives. But much will depend on the interpretation and on recognising who – higher education or employer – is best equipped to contribute what.

The Universities Australia initiative seems to focus on “vocational training to improve graduate employability”. This needs to be interpreted quite broadly. All higher education is vocational in the sense that it can help shape a graduate’s capacity to succeed in the workplace.

Higher education is about life skills, not just job skills.

Many years ago, Harold Silver and I wrote a book entitled A Liberal Vocationalism. It was based on a project we had just completed on the aims of degree courses in vocational areas such as accountancy, business and engineering. The book’s title intentionally conveyed the message that even vocational degree courses were about more than training for a job. There were assumptions about criticality, transferability of skills, creating and adapting to change and, above all, an academic credibility.

I can still recall the argument made by the head of a polytechnic accountancy department who we interviewed for the project. He emphasised that it was essential for accountancy students to take courses in the philosophy of science. What could be more central to the job of accounting than being able to recognise “truth”?

Studying different subjects and preparing for different jobs all require different things. Some of these are known at the time of study. Others are not.

Degree courses in subjects such as history and sociology are preparations for employment as much as vocational degrees such as business and engineering. But the job details will not be known at the time of study. Indeed, they may not be known until several years later.

Thus, the relevance of higher education to later working life for many graduates will lie in the realm of generic and transferable skills rather than specific competencies needed for a first job after graduation. The latter competences are not unimportant but the graduate’s employer is generally much better equipped than a university to ensure that the graduate acquires them.

Work experience alongside or as part of study can also help a lot. The emergence of graduates from higher education without any employment experiences is neither in their own nor in their employers’ interests.

Higher education is about preparation for working life, not for a specific job in the first couple of years after graduation. Graduates who have studied the more academic subjects will require a longer transition period into employment than those who have studied more vocational degrees. The transition may well entail further training in a professional field, which either the employer or an educational institution may provide.

All types of graduates are likely to change their jobs several times over their working lives.

Higher education is for the long term. Universities, employers and students should realise that.

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