Universities face a dilemma when it comes to educating for industry

27 Jan 2020

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A controversial decision by the University of Sunderland to provide education based solely on industry needs is a worrying red flag, writes Elaine Burke.

Universities could typically be defined as centres of higher learning, not production factories shipping ready-made industry employees cast in identical moulds. But at least one university appears to have forgotten that. 

Billed as a “career-focused and professions-facing approach” to its curriculum, the University of Sunderland announced earlier this month that it will no longer offer courses in modern foreign languages, history and politics. Research and other activities in these areas will also be dropped in favour of prioritising education and research into subjects that provide “clear routes into employment”, such as engineering, computer science and business.  

It’s not a complete loss of humanities subjects at the university, with the arts and creative industries also included as focus areas in the new strategy. It must have been determined that these subjects will also prove useful in business as, according to the university’s board of governors, all subjects and programmes in the university should align with a particular employment sector.

A sense of foreboding

In a way, I’m grateful to the University of Sunderland for being frank about its motivations. Universities around the world are collaborating closely with industry so they can attract students to invest in years of learning for the pay-off of a career.

Computer science and engineering, in particular, offer students a gateway into the ‘sexy’ world of tech, often touted as a rock-star-like career choice for those seeking wealth and status. And growing skills gaps mean degrees in these subjects will undoubtedly unlock a world of opportunities. 

But it’s not the subjects that the University of Sunderland has decided to select that gives me a sense of foreboding, but rather the manner in which it is making these decisions. To take an institution where thinking should be boundless in order to guide us toward the new and undiscovered, and squeeze its graduates into rigid packages shaped by predetermined industry standards seems contrary to the fundamental ideals of a university.

As well as being an industry-minded decision, the University of Sunderland noted little uptake in its history, foreign languages and politics courses as another reason for this decision. In fact, no new students joined the modern foreign languages programmes at the start of this academic year. History took on 14 undergraduate students and no postgraduate students, while the combined politics and history degree attracted 15 undergraduate students.

When I was in secondary school, our Leaving Certificate chemistry class of seven was the largest the school had seen in years. The previous year had a single student in this class, who received one-on-one lessons. If my school had decided to drop chemistry based on demand that year, all seven of us in the next class would have missed out on a science subject that was already a too-rare find in an all-girls school.  

Of course, this is not comparable to the decision made by University of Sunderland, but it is a small-scale example of the losses that can arise from the removal of open-ended opportunities. It’s one thing to acknowledge that an area is lacking popularity and downsize accordingly. It’s quite another to scrub it from your books entirely. 

Computing wasn’t an instant business behemoth, and it’s the academics, researchers and students who were allowed to tinker and experiment with applications who helped build the digital landscape as we know it today.

Pivot to industry

The University of Sunderland’s decision also strikes me as a bold one to make at a time when higher-education institutions are under threat by new models of learning in the information age.  

The appetite for self-directed and life-long learning is now so great that it has inspired new businesses such as The Great Courses Plus and MasterClass, and the rise of online learning is reshaping how even universities themselves deliver coursework. 

If, in this context, people begin questioning the relevance of universities, challenging their role in society, and demanding justification of the public funds they receive, a pivot towards a production line of industry-ready graduates is not going to help their cause.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic