In late February, the European Centre for the Development of Professional Training (Cedefop), in Thessaloniki (Greece), organised a workshop entitled ‘Fostering partnerships for continuing training: Cooperation between higher education institutions (HEIs) and enterprises’. Representatives from business, HEIs and other organisations (OECD, EURASHE) attended. I (Victoria Galan Muros, UIIN) was invited to present.
The starting point of the workshop was that the current skills shortage and mismatch that exist in Europe need to be urgently and efficiently addressed by both business and HEIs collaboratively. However, practices in this area are still scarce and uneven in different EU countries and the wide variety of HEIs that offer vocational education and training (VET). Some interesting discussions emerged and I would highlight two of them:
Joint curriculum design by academics and business people
This has proven to be of great benefit for students and their employability, but seems to be one of the hardest ones to ‘sell’ to academics, since some of them feel that it might clash with their academic freedom. The basis of academic freedom is that academics know what is best to teach students, but the question emerged of what to do (and can be done) when this is does not correlate with student employability. How much joint curriculum is about hearing external opinion vs incorporating them? The reality shows that, in UK universities, employability rates are heavily measured and an indicator to consider when choosing a HEI; students want sufficient value for their £9.000+ investment. However, can universities even promise good employability skills to graduates when it relies on the freedom of individual academics to provide those?
The HEI as a provider of lifelong learning courses and vocational education and training
A delegate mentioned that for academics this was often considered less ‘glamorous’ than teaching in research-oriented programmes. For those academics that agree to provide this type of education, it was questioned whether all of them have the appropriate skills and practical knowledge to support adults and professionals (this is especially true in tutoring work-based learning). Business representatives admitted that they often find that universities cannot offer enough practical education and training, so they hire other private training organisations for this. Therefore, is this even something that HEIs should keep doing? Should they leave it or get better at it? The financial implications of these programmes just complicates the equation.
These two debates led to the more profound question of, “What is the purpose of universities’ existence?” How much is the mission of the HEI to prepare students for the world of work? And how much is it to give them general knowledge that makes them critical thinkers and knowledgeable citizens? It is definitely not easy to set a line between where education finishes and training starts and everyone has a different opinion on this. This question will require another post (or a whole book) itself. The reality is that the reason for the existence of HEIs is often not clear even within the organisation itself. Each individual within the HEI has the ‘freedom’ to have an opinion and the authority to impose one is definitely lower than in corporations. Disagreeing within HEIs is almost compulsory. Most academics would agree that high graduate unemployment is a problem and that workers’ skills need to be updated and I am sure that all of them would like to help. The ‘How?’ is the next question to answer.
I posed some final questions: Do we want all HEIs to be the same? Do we want/need all the programmes/faculties to be equally market-oriented? The debate is open…
You can find more information on the event here
Authored by Victoria Galan Muros (UIIN)