Universities, thinking competencies and vocational learning in 21st century

A very interesting interview with David Willetts in The Times yesterday – 14 August. Even to a deep sceptic about the coalition government, it reads like a balanced and considered view. Perhaps more interestingly, it articulates what both parents and employers have been saying for some time now:
• ‘A’ levels no longer fit for purpose;
• higher education should not be seen just as a route to a job;
• teaching ability [i.e. the ability to transfer both knowledge AND the capacity to think] should be the primary criterion, not the least criterion, for professional success for university academics

Imagine what things would be like if this were all to come to pass! What would we, as employers, get? Well, maybe bright and informed graduates, with a multifaceted sense of the world we live in, equipped with the ability to make connections both obvious and more subtle, with the humility (and the tact!) to recognise the difference between theory and practice , able to value experience but with a real sense of self that enables them to articulate perceptions and substantiate their own arguments. They might be people capable of critical analysis, with the vocabulary and wit to contribute intellectually to company debate, and to bring the new thinking and new ICT lingua franca to the benefit of those of us who are hungry and interested but are dealing with the issues themselves rather than with the methodology for dealing with those issues!…oh happy day!

A University’s primary purpose in the 21st century should surely be to enrich an individual’s capacity to think, to nurture a sense of wonder in the world around us and to stimulate a sense of questioning and adventure, matched by the ability to respond both creatively and analytically to what they see, what they hear, what they experience; to be able to exercise visual literacy as confidently as verbal literacy and numeracy; being able to develop concepts and think across disciplines, able to make unexpected connections; able to take joy from nano-innovation but similarly able to conceptualise big picture, strategic implications; to relish intellectual risk taking but simultaneously understanding the potential consequences of those risks and embracing that responsibility.

Maybe what we should be saying is that not only is University the wrong place for learning about earning your living but it is also quite simply the wrong location for vocational learning of any kind in a knowledge economy. University is where you learn to think, to conceptualise, to challenge, to substantiate, to refine. The knowledge economy requires those ‘Thinking Competencies”, irrespective of the discipline involved. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, professional services, scientists, technologists, artists, designers, communicators, professors, researchers, event and creative producers, planners, economists, civil servants – all need the ‘Thinking Competencies’ described above. Maybe they should be compulsory. Maybe this is what the Universities should focus on and maybe leave the vocational learning, irrespective of what discipline that might be, to others.

And academics? We should insist on a strong minimum number of hours of tutor contact time. We should put an end to the almost corrupt practice of using PhD students, regardless of their communications skills, to teach undergraduate and Masters’ courses. We should make clear distinctions between the skills and abilities necessary for researchers and those for teachers. Teaching, sharing knowledge and inspiring new thinking should have a value of its own. It should not be the also-ran of academia. It should be the inspiration and driver of academia. Researchers who cannot communicate and enthuse others have their place but they should be respected and valued as such and should not be required to be teachers. Maybe they should simply and regularly attend some lectures to listen, observe and argue with post graduates to enable them to keep their own thinking fresh and challenged and stimulated.

But there should be an end to the emphasis on research to the detriment of teaching – in a Knowledge Economy, it is the workforce itself that seizes on knowledge, develops it and applies it, thus contributing to GDP. We are no longer a workforce of undereducated masses engaged in intellectually numbing occupations, dependent on a highly educated minority to show the way. Part of the reason for this whole debate about the role (and the usefulness) of Universities is that informed creative thinking is now required in every part of the economy. It can no longer remain the bailiwick of academia and its denizens. In many cases, in many sectors both public and private, employers and their workforces are doing it better than the academics. The massive democratisation of knowledge (as distinct from mere information) means that the role of academics is changing substantially. The academic who today cannot spin off a company, or set up a consultancy, or be paid to match their intellectual capacity against the applied intelligence and experience of entrepreneurs, is of limited value to his or her institution. And yet the ivory tower mindset persists. To adapt a famous quote from Harvard University’s Gary Hamel, himself a classic example of the entrepreneurial academic, one might say “Academics the world over pay lip service to the idea that the world is moving faster and that we need to do a better job of engaging with industry. But if you go into an institution and ask them to describe their industry engagement system, you get blank looks – they have none”.

Time for a change.

And so what about vocational learning? Where are all the doctors, scientists, artists and designers going to learn their skills if not at University? How are we going to people this knowledge economy? We all know that there are the beginnings of a revolution going on – a revolution that guardians of vested interests and traditional thinking are resisting, of course. It’s a revolution where the emphasis is on relevant , current and appropriate training for skills for life. It is attempting to change perceptions about what is dismissively referred to as ‘vocational’ learning by positioning it as an equal to academic excellence. What nonsense is this? It isn’t remotely comparable – nor should it be. It is not, should never have been and must never be allowed to be in the future, merely comparable. If we can agree that academic excellence rests in developing the Thinking Competencies described above, then vocational learning should and must be seen as complementary.

Vocational learning shouldn’t be undertaken in any discipline without a foundation of the Thinking Competencies. So University should be essential for all. The idea of creating safe space for intellectual development and challenge seems to be an ineluctable cost of developing a successful knowledge economy. And then we provide the vocational training. Just as currently doctors do a degree and then go as interns into teaching hospitals, and law graduates have to do a Training Contract , before any of them are allowed to practice independently, so we should take and adapt the model for all kinds of disciplines. By the time the students have done two years at our ‘knowledge compounding’ universities, their capacity to choose and to contribute to the vocational part of their lives will be expanded exponentially. Their potential breadth of understanding, the ability to conceive and challenge concepts, to create and to analyse, will all combine to make vocational students more receptive, more creative, more innovative as they prepare themselves for a lifetime of learning and applied knowledge.

And if we are worried about cost, all this could be achieved within existing or shorter timeframes. Is there any chance we can drag the learning and skills industry into the 21st century and dispense with the idiotic, expensive and unthinking tradition of three terms and long holidays? Even a phased introduction to real life terms and conditions would be an improvement – their 2 years at University developing their Knowledge Competencies could and probably should include lots of untimetabled thinking time. But by the time they get to vocational learning, preferably delivered in entirely different institutions with entirely different cultures, the environment should more nearly reflect the reality of the world of work.

Finally, Cambridge University in its arrogance has provided a list of ‘A level’ subjects that they would not consider sufficiently intellectually rigorous to warrant consideration for University entrance. Mostly vocational subjects and, worse, mostly creative subjects. Heaven forfend that performing arts studies should be thought to be appropriate to current university entrance! Well, it grieves me to say so but, actually, I agree with Cambridge. The truth is that our creative sectors have been ill served by schools and examining boards devising idiotic GCSE and A level subjects originally intended to attract the less intellectually gifted but now misleading even highly gifted pupils into thinking that these examinations will give them further insight into an area that they love and that they want to know more about. We need creative practitioners to know about the world, to be able reference widely, to be confident in challenging and conceptualising. ‘A level’ exams cheapen and demean those disciplines. Universities do little better. Creative disciplines are often genuinely vocational, where the learning is underpinned by an emotional as well as an intellectual commitment. They have no place in universities as they currently exist (although of course they do provide a wonderful way of attracting students when student numbers are a more important success criterion than talent or industry relevance). But they should be included in our proposed Vocational Learning centres above. If all our artists and creative practitioners had the opportunity to develop our Thinking Competencies, to learn to think, to conceptualise, to challenge across a broad context, not inhibited by single discipline demands, how much richer would be their learning – and ours!