LibLink: Phil Willis – We must re-think the role of universities if we want to produce a world-class workforce

Former Lib Dem MP, Phil Willis – or Baron Willis of Knaresborough to give him his full title – has penned a piece for the Yorkshire Post arguing that now is the time for a radical re-think about the role and function of our universities and how they could be re-engineered to provide a world-class workforce to deliver world-class goods and services to a global economy. Until his retirement from the Commons, of course, Phil was chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee.

He has some tough things to say about the Coalition’s emergency budget:

The emergency Budget, followed by a draconian comprehensive settlement in the autumn, has the potential to plunge UK plc into a second or third wave of recession from which it will take decades to recover. The overriding strategy appears simple – cut deeply and cut quickly. Rather like the 18th century surgeon removing the whole leg to because of a gangrenous foot – radical surgery was seen as the only option. As a result, George Osborne and Danny Alexander have embarked on a slash and burn approach to all things publically funded with the somewhat vain and unevidenced view that the economy will be saved and we will return to full prosperity.

But the principal point of his article is to urge the Coalition to “use the crisis as an opportunity to re-engineer our economy towards the future” by investing in “winners”:

There is not a single area of proposed new economic growth that will not require the application of science, engineering and technology and, crucially, not a single area that can succeed without developing the highest levels of human capital, provided by our education system and particularly our universities. But only if it is the right capital, which is why we need to focus on the right areas.

To date this has been absent – rather we have seen yet another proposed re-organisation of our schools with the rapid expansion of academies and proposed cuts to our universities. This can only lead to a reduction of intellectual capital, not an increase. Without, in either case, a critical examination of our economy’s needs – it appears that changing the chairs on the Titanic and removing a few to make more room is the answer.

Phil delares himself in favour of a graduate tax as a way of funding higher education, but closes with some penetrating questions:

… surely the time is right to at least challenge the present system which has grown like “topsy” since 1963 and the Robbins Report. Surely it is time to question why we need so many higher education institutions in the first place?

Why do we need a system whereby 159 separate organisations have their own governance structures, quality assurance systems and separate degree awarding bodies? Why when the taxpayer contributes such a large proportion of income should there not be greater levels of accountability
to what the nation wants from the sector?

It may be uncomfortable to ask such heretical questions but they are exactly what every organisation, private or public is now having to address. Why not the most important organisations of all – those that generate ideas and knowledge for our collective future?

You can read Phil’s article in full here.

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6 Comments

  • Brilliant – i love Phil Willis.

  • We need continual assessment in unis. There are too many HE institutions that pack students into 300-person lecture halls- with attendance unmonitored- and then there are exams at the end of the year with nothing in between. If we want to catch up to unis in the States, we need much more money in the sector but also a much greater level of attention paid to student satisfaction and public accountabiity

  • I think Boston Mass has upwards of 100 univs in the area. In that context is just over 150 in the UK really that many? Many US liberal arts and community colleges are very small.
    (nb, not the earlier tim)

  • Jonathan Hunt 30th Jul '10 - 5:05pm

    The Herr Docktor who runs the huge factory (remmber them?) in Germany would have left school at 18, become an enginering apprentice and then went on to higher education, having mastered many of the practical aspects of what s/he was studying.

    A good number of our engineering and other profesors of useful subjects (now about to retire) once came to academia by the same voctional route. But the appalling vested interests of academics sneer at vocational subjects, while prefering to teach crap soft subjects lacking applicable skills.

    Grey squirrel academics have probably forced out the all-important red ones, who earn much more in what’s left of industry.

    Until we change these attitudes,encourage more young people to initially take the vocaional route, and stipulate that all universities must admit a high – perhaps 25 per cent — of students from the vocational route, higher education is going to be less and less relevant to all but the fortunate 5 per cent or so who went to uni in the mid-1960s.

    As my friend, onetime boss and now Britain’s skills tzar Chris Humphries says: “Learning is for the learned, not the learners.”

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