Monday, 21 September 2009

Cut out the Middleman

The CBI Higher Education task force, chaired by Sam Laidlaw, Chief Executive of Centrica, said today that “businesses must do more to support the UK’s higher education system with individual funding and increased internships and work placements. Businesses would then have the opportunity to work with universities to develop course syllabi”; also that “Universities and government cannot deliver a world-class service alone. Effective collaboration between the higher education sector, business and government will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness”.

At one level, these statements look like an extension of July’s useful HEFCE/CBI report “Stepping Higher: Workforce development through employer-higher education partnerships”.

At another level, this begs several questions at a time that the LibDems are proposing raising the bar on middle-class tuition fees:

Firstly, is it the case that the only way a degree can be useful nowadays is if it is kite-marked as useful by a successful business?

Secondly, does this by inference mean that traditional degree curricula are no longer connected with the real world? (At this point, one remembers the story of the English Literature student at the back of the Oxford University lecture hall being asked why he wasn’t taking notes; and replying that he didn’t need to: he had his father’s).

Thirdly, if both one and two are largely correct, then what about using a classic business strategy to sort this out: disintermediation - cutting out the middleman? One way to integrate collaboration between HE and business would be to remove the Government from the equation, and allow businesses to pay their taxes in lieu directly to fund particular universities and as paymasters, to call the tune and set the necessary standards. We could even scrap tuition fees.

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