Utilitarianism and skills

The FT published an interesting article yesterday on the current financial troubles facing universities by both tuition fee freezes and, more recently, the changes enforced by the pandemic.

The article ended with paraphrased comments from Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth university:

The bigger danger to universities was a “utilitarian” government view that they existed only to train workers in “skills the government decides are needed”. “Our broader role in producing well-rounded graduates . . . is being lost,” he said.


First, Is a utilitarian view a bad thing for a government to take on mass education? 

Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Oxford Languages

Second, how are the government deciding on the skills needed?

“The drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system comes as the Prime Minister launches a new Build Back Better Business Council. The new group will see business leaders work directly with government to fuel the Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Pioneering reforms to boost skills and jobs, Gov.UK

After years of government-supported rapid expansion, in part at the expense of cash-starved further education colleges, the university sector faces genuine challenges. According to the Office for National Statistics, university student numbers have almost doubled since 1992. Graduate numbers are now over 50%; informed by the Augar review, the government has moved its attention to the other 50%. 

Forward-looking universities are working with the government to deliver new qualification such as degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Both parties are working with businesses to address the genuine global, national, and regional skills gaps. Students, too, are looking for the promise of a more economically secure future and are voting with their feet towards attractive courses, reputable universities, and the perceived boost to career opportunities.

The solutions are far from perfect and often seem like two steps forward one step back, but they are transparent in their direction of travel and open to universities involvement in helping write how we get there. What is included in courses to make students well-rounded is still in the control of those delivering them and businesses are still keen on students that can think, solve problems, and be agile. Universities need to decide if they want to be small elite institutions that service a minority or mass centres of learning that prepare students for a better future.

The tricky thing about a free market in higher education is that it is democratic; the supply and demand have to respond to each other.   

Employer involvement in course design

Employability must be a core focus for all higher education. With 8% of employers not able to fill posts due to a lack of applicants with the right skills and 13% of employers having similar issues with a lack of skills in current employees, workplaces need more skilled individuals. The sizeable gaps in the job market represent lost productivity for those companies, lost taxes that could help the poorest in society, and a large number of individuals that could have more profitable and rewarding jobs if they only had the right skills.

These skills gaps come alongside record levels of HE participation, with more than 50% of the population gaining a degree by 30. The Government has labelled this problem the skills mismatch, and it is getting larger. Universities are responsible for addressing the mismatch by ensuring that graduates leave their courses with skills that can get them jobs.

One step towards reducing the skills mismatch involves employers in the design and delivery of university courses. Initiating and developing these relationships can be time intimidating and consuming for academics that have not developed skills in this kind of relationship building. Here I have suggested five steps to building solid collaboration with employers in a gradual phased approach. Any such effort aims to reach step five, at which multiple employers help to design a course to fill their skills needs and are happy to add their brand to marketing materials and employ graduates that the courses produce.

Five steps of employer involvement:

  1. Guest lectures
  2. Student site visits
  3. Employer developed assessments
  4. Student Placements
  5. Co-designed courses