Employer-funded degrees: When employers trample through the groves of academia

A leaked higher education strategy document indicates the government wants employers to have an important role in funding and shaping degree courses. This should be handled with care.

With the government hell-bent on forcing every other teenager to go to university, it’s likely that employers will find themselves footing more and more of the costs. This is one underlying theme of a document, the Higher Level Skills Strategy, details of which have leaked out over recent weeks.

Realising the public purse is fraying at the edges, Whitehall policy wonks are looking at ways of funding more university expansion so there are sufficient places for 50% of 18 year-olds, and thus meet a target espoused by Tony Blair before the last election. Currently about 40% of 18-year olds go to university, though drop-out rates at some institutions are very high so the degree completion rate is probably far lower.

The carrot for any employer who wishes to stump up cash for academia is that they will be empowered to shape the scope and content of degrees they are funding – presumably on a group basis. As the strategy document says: “We expect the great majority of this growth (in university expansion) to be in provision that is developed with employer input, either foundation degrees or employer co-funded places.”

Universities may also be incentivised to co-operate with employers. The strategy paper says such like would be given extra resources.

The document also envisages major changes in course structure and routine, such as introducing intensive attendance, so that degrees can be completed in two years or less. Such an outbreak of commonsense is long overdue: why students should have to rack up debt doing three-year courses that can be done in two is mystifying.

Other options include developing courses that can be taught in the workplace or online, and degrees that can be started at various times of the year.

Whether any of this will come to pass is a moot point but, given that many universities are dependent to varying degrees on local employer goodwill and largesse, it’s quite likely. This could see senior HR and L&D staff playing a major role in such developments. After all, they would be best placed to relate degree course design and content to employer needs. It could open up a whole new area of career development for them.

Some of the less wealthy universities may be tempted to dance to any tune employers might hum to get their hands on their cash. Believe me when I tell you that many academics now are devoted more to the pursuit of funding, and finding overseas students who pay high fees, rather than learning. It’s more than a bread and butter issue, it’s their livelihood.

If the government does go down this road, it must also ensure lines are drawn that protect higher education institutions’ image and standing. I don’t suppose we’ll get the KFC University of Oxford, but we could get the B&Q University of Everton or the Birds Eye University of Grimsby.

Both Everton and Grimsby have been mentioned as possible locations for 20 new universities that the government is considering. Certainly the poorer universities will be tempted by what may be offered should the strategy become reality. For example, the paper says growth in courses and student numbers will be “initially concentrated in those institutions which have shown they are willing to commit to working closely with employers.”

This may be, but universities need to preserve their dignity and standing otherwise the value of their qualifications will be seriously devalued. You need only look at some of the joint honours degrees offered with HR Management studies.

Joint honours degrees have a fine academic pedigree but I’m hard put to see the sense in combining Dance and HR management. Though maybe Waste Management and HR management, on offer at the University of Northampton, may offer some useful synergies for those planning an HR career in tight-wad organisations.

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