Should education be designed with work in mind? No way.

If GCSEs prepare you for A-Levels, A-Levels prepare you for university, and university prepares you for work, does that mean that your GCSEs determine what you do for the rest of your life?

That seems to be the direction of UK government policy at the moment.

David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, recently published a white paper advocating a more employment-centric focus for university courses.

The basic idea is that education should be designed to prepare people for work.

Starting early (Photo credit: Flickr / Alexandre Lemieux)

This kind of teleological thinking is insidious.

It leads to the closure of ‘non-essential’ courses – those that do not contribute to GDP in a directly measurable way.

It leads to further devaluation of the arts.

It leads to tighter alignment of academia with mainstream businesses, because they’re the ones with the loudest voices.

Academia and business must be linked, but if they are bound too closely both will suffer: academic value will be restricted to subjects that are seen to contribute most economically, and business will get too many new workers with the same skills and the same perspective.

Students will suffer too, because if their suitability is judged against mainstream business requirements, many will be found wanting whose talents lie, undiscovered, in other areas.

That’s because it will be less able to help young people find what Sir Ken Robinson calls their ‘Element’: the thing that combines their innate skills and passions.

A life in which everything is artificially aligned from the start – a teleological life, leading inexorably to a job defined by your academic career – is likely to be less, not more economically useful.

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

One Reply to “Should education be designed with work in mind? No way.”

  1. Great blog and interesting article, but I am not entirely sure I agree. You suggest that it’s a black and white situation, that Willets will make degrees, and education, feed students directly into the marketing or commercial departments at J.Bloggs Inc. I think you also conflate the closure of some arts/humanities courses with this policy, and I won't comment on this as I think its a separate issue.

    Big caveat – I've not read the White Paper (!), but I think there is a middle ground. Every student should be given the chance to be successful beyond the campus, but this needs to be tailored to the student. Regardless of these proposals, elite students will still be able to attend an elite institution, read Geography or classics or music, and then get a job at an elite management consultancy, media firm or ad agency. If they so choose. Such degree courses are unlikely to change, but not all students are able to make these choices. Those who would benefit from a policy change are the large number of students who 15 years ago would not have attended university, but are now entering a labour market that is flooded with fellow sociology, marketing and media studies graduates. Getting a job may not be a reason to go to university, but it is pretty important for our wellbeing once graduated. Employers will always seek out the academically gifted – it is the academically average and below average that may need help in getting a job they want.

    It is often suggested that the an apprenticeship/vocational training scheme be put in place to offer these students an alternative, but the counter argument to this is that a two-tier system of further education would develop, discriminating against those without a degree. To combat this, I see no reason why degree courses should not provide some grounding in enterprise skills or commercial awareness. The later in particular is often sought by potential future employers. I think that Aston University already offers a sandwich year in industry as an option for all their courses. This provides students with useful skills and experiences that may make getting the first job easier. These placements obviously need to be properly planned and taken seriously – and I agree with the points raised in your earlier posting regarding work experience. But if what you suggest in that post is implemented, then surely students would benefit, and what's more, know more about themselves?

    I completely agree that people should seek to align their skills and passions in what they do in life. The first job after university is an important part of that development process, where people begin to understand their skills and appreciate their passions. Helping to prepare students to secure that crucial first job is not the traditional role of universities, but when it is argued that education prepares people for life, why should this exclude the working life? If we want people, of all academic level, to be successful, then they need to be able to choose education and preparation that is right for them.

What do you think?