George Pitcher: It is wrong to favour flat caps over scholars’ gowns

The Institute of Directors believes fewer people should go to university, and more should take up trades. But the two complement each other, says George Pitcher

When employers’ organisations start to bang on about educational standards, I invariably feel like counting the spoons. Industrial clubs such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) might have a clear idea of how best to run businesses, but education is about running the country – in terms of being both a high Government priority and an investment in the UK’s future.

The IoD is likely to take a less Olympian view of the requirements for the education of future generations. This is understandable: it is no part of UK industry’s remit to be concerned with the roundness of education or children’s happiness – except in so far as it is concerned with protecting its property and assets from young hooligans.

Businesses make money and, in turn, drive economic growth. It is for governments, schools and parents to worry about educational standards. So it’s with little surprise or alarm that I see that the IoD is publishing a report this week – Education and Training: A Business Blueprint for Reform – the thrust of which is that UK business needs more skilled workers and fewer university graduates.

At 275 pages, this is a worthy and detailed analysis of the further education requirements of UK business. But IoD head of policy Ruth Lea may regret being quoted in The Sunday Times as saying: “We need more plumbers and fewer media studies graduates.”

It’s a view that sounds snobbish and plutocratic – as the old American song has it, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” It also seems to be an unpleasant sneer at media studies.

But this does Lea a disservice. She has an interesting case to make. The IoD report describes the Government’s ambition to put 50 per cent of young people through university by 2010 as “ludicrous” and calls for the proportion to be reduced to 15 to 20 per cent. It also advocates greater emphasis on vocational training.

Lea does make a very unsnobbish point: “This obsession with sending as many young people as possible into higher education undermines vocational training by making it appear second best.” She seems to be saying that we shouldn’t force the next generation into inappropriate academic endeavours, when they would be happier – and industry would be better served – if they took up a trade.

I see the rationale. The Government’s commitment to education-times-three means it is pursuing an ideology that is right neither for students nor for our economy. I understand the IoD’s argument – and I couldn’t disagree with it more.

It seems to me that there is a central misunderstanding at the IoD – and, by extension, throughout UK business – of what a university education is for. The IoD claims it needs more people with vocational training, rather than graduates forced through the groves of academe. The implication is that the latter is irrelevant for skilled workers, who could have saved time getting on with their trade.

So far, so fair – history, anthropology or media studies don’t fit you for a trade. But the purpose of a university education isn’t to fit anyone for a trade (with that much the IoD must agree) but to develop the mind, broaden horizons and nurture intellect.

At a time when western secular capitalism finds itself at war with eastern spiritual fundamentalism, Europe is moving towards a federal future and genetic engineering and information technology are poised to change the way we live within a generation, I would have thought we need broader education like never before.

I’d have thought, too, that this is as much a commercial issue as a social one. Graduates with some idea of the world they live in are better suited to trading and working in it. But I’m afraid that remark is likely to have the IoD sneering again – it doesn’t believe that many universities provide that kind of education.

Two years ago, when Chris Woodhead was the schools tsar, he complained of “vacuous”, “quasi-academic” degree courses, citing golf-course management, pig enterprise management and knitwear & beauty therapy as examples.

Lea (who has a BA from York University and an MSc from Bristol) chimed in at that time too: “What is worrying about many of these degrees is that they don’t give specific skills and they are not even particularly academically rigorous.”

I’m confused. I’d have thought that managing golf courses or pigs would require some very specific skills, in a way that theology or history of art don’t. One might even venture so far as to suggest that such courses are vocational. But that’s not really the point.

The point must be that universities should be encouraged to improve the academic depth and intellectual demands of degree courses – and that we should encourage as many young people as possible to take such courses, if they can manage them. They can do their vocational courses afterwards – in fact, they’ll perform in their specific vocations more effectively for having properly equipped themselves intellectually.

If we need more blue-collar workers, let’s open our shores to less educationally fortunate immigrants and asylum-seekers – we have already been glad to have these workers run our transport, health and catering services.

But to suggest that we dumb down our youth, which is what the IoD’s policy amounts to, is ultimately to hobble UK industry’s competitiveness.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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