Teacher training in further and higher education

“SO PUFFLES, WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO RESIGN OVER YOUR SHOCKINGLY IGNORANT AND QUITE FRANKLY OFFENSIVE OUTBURST?!?!”

*Puffles is a mute baby dragon fairy & thus can’t talk*

At the end of this afternoon’s teacher training seminar, I threw out a couple of controversial tweets through Puffles which caused something of a mini twitter storm within the #Pufflesmassiv. It polarised opinion (as I somewhat expected) but also gave all who followed it a number of really interesting insights from those who responded – both who agreed and who disagreed.

The tweets were as followed:

Puffles notes that http://www.cityandguilds.com/45858.html & equivalents are compulsory for teachers in FE. Puffles thinks this shd apply to uni lecturers too

Puffles thinks post-grads who run seminars for undergrads shd be compelled to takehttp://www.cityandguilds.com/45858.html or equivalents —>

…as teaching is far more than delivering a lecture or taking a class through a handout.

You can see why they caused a fire storm. Now, I posted those tweets for two reasons.

  • The first was having had an extremely unsatisfactory time when a full-time student at university as far as intellectual and academic development was concerned. I got my 2:1 from a redbrick university in a subject that is reasonably highly regarded in the corporate world (economics). But it could have been so much more. In the grand scheme of things this is all ancient history – I graduated nearly ten years ago.
  • The second was having just tumbled out of a very inspiring seminar on teaching methods, which made me wonder why the academic staff I had at university only seemed to rely on a small number of delivery methods.

Following through on those two things, I wondered whether my experience – and the experiences of other students who have been through university could have been improved by making university academic staff – lecturers and those who take seminars and practicals – more aware of the wide range of tools and methods that are at their disposal. Therefore in order to ensure students are less likely to face teachers, lecturers and other academic staff who are not up to scratch, why not make the course that is now compulsory for further education teachers compulsory for everyone in the higher education sector too?  

Now, based on the above-two bullet points, ten years of seething/loathing and seven years in the civil service, you get something of an insight of where some ideas can and do come from in the Whitehall jungle.

The response from everyone is a classic case of why crowd-sourcing in the policy-making cycle is a good thing. The things that I took away from the mini-firestorm that ensued were:

  1. The problem of student dissatisfaction with courses that they are on is not something that has gone away – in fact the ever-increasing fees has made it all the more likely that students are going to speak up
  2. The experience of one individual (in this case me) having experienced a problem and then identifying a possible solution is probably (okay, definitely) not the best method of policy making – though I’m sure you can name a number of political examples where policy has been made in this way
  3. The evidence base will always be incomplete, but social media allows us to source our evidence from a much wider pool than in years gone by – this is potentially a huge strength if Whitehall, politicians and think tanks choose to harness the power of social media

There are a number of issues that were raised by the people who took part in the exchange of views – which reflected the diverse experiences of all that fired back either in support or against the statements. 

One of my acquaintances from my dancing days years ago studied history at Cambridge. He told me how he had something along the lines of two to three assessed essays a week. At my redbrick university I had two or three assessed essays a term. Irrespective of the calibre of the academics at either institutions, having that level of regular assessment and feedback will inevitably have an impact compared to those at institutions that do not.

Now, it would be pointless to go off on a rant comparing Cambridge to every other university in the country beyond that anecdote above – it wouldn’t achieve anything and would just annoy people. Cambridge also has a very intensive selection process that very few universities in the country can get near. A number of people said (and with good reason) that bringing in what seems like a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise of having to complete a basic teacher training course would be a burden rather than a benefit – especially for those at the very top end of their fields.

The problem is what to do in the wider higher education sector in an environment of significantly rising fees. The Higher Education Statistics Authority stated that just over 180,000 people were employed in an academic role in the UK between 2009/10, and has published detailed of the finances – including investment income universities receive. There will inevitably be variations in terms of quality of both teaching and in resources provided, just as there will be variations in the calibre of applicants that apply to and are enrolled on courses. (Please don’t take this to mean I’m saying that all [insert name of group of people] are bad – I’m not). How do you deal with those who are ‘under-performing’?

One of the things that caught me out in the debate that ensued were the changes that have occurred since I graduated. One of them has been the incorporation of the essentials of teacher training into the programmes of Ph.D students, alongside mandatory training by some universities for academic staff and postgraduates who have teaching/lecturing roles. Another is the development of the national student survey which monitors feedback at a national level – though this survey has its problems. One is the inevitable tension between students not wanting to jeopardise their future career chances by damaging the reputation of their institution by contributing to poor results in their responses. So in that regard, academic institutions are already taking steps.

Going back to the original tweets that caused the firestorm, there were a few very basic errors I made.

  1. I stated a solution before I’d even identified the problem – hence people’s initial reaction was “Why would you want to do that?”
  2. I hadn’t asked whether other people had experienced similar problems to the one that I had identified. (As it turned out, a number of other people had similar experiences)
  3. I hadn’t done nearly enough research into the changes that had happened since I had graduated. Higher education policy has changed beyond all recognition from my school days – half my lifetime ago. When I was being advised about university, Alan Shearer was at the peak of his abilities and tuition fees were not even on the agenda. As for the internet, what was that?
  4. I didn’t ask people for their suggestions first – rather reverting to type (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that after 7 years in the civil service, I am somewhat institutionalised – hence the challenge of breaking free from it) with a solution that could easily have been dreamt up in the glass towers of Victoria Street. But best to take the kicking in over the informal platforms of the comments section of a blog like this or over a twitter feed than let it go all the way through to a major section of a government white paper.

What was good about firing off in the manner that I did was that it got a number of people from a reasonably diverse range of backgrounds and political viewpoints talking about an issue that is affecting thousands of people across the country – and one that is not going to go away quickly. The challenge for Whitehall in a wider sense is whether it is prepared to throw some rough diamonds out to social media world and have them polished up before they get anywhere near the pages of a formal White Paper. After all, if someone like me can do the above and learn from it, why not the civil service?  

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13 Responses to Teacher training in further and higher education

  1. Oh, Puffs, I don’t think you were taking a kicking! People just giving their opinion were’t they?

    You are allowed to rattle cans and see what falls out when you tip them upside down!

    Here’s what you rattled in my wee can this afternoon.

    People don’t seem to understand, universities are not teaching institutions in the way that schools are. It really upsets me to see this misunderstanding develop over the past few decades.

    I suspected it was going astray when universities began offering courses (and those courses were counted towards the degree) on how to use a word processer. We had to word-process our third-year dissertations away back in the days of the dinosaurs (none of us had ever used a keyboard before). Our lecturers dealt with our howls of complaints by saying ‘Do you think Watson and Crick sat around moaning until someone came along and solved their problem for them, spoon fed them? Course not, they used their brains and figured it out. So now you lot will have to go and figure it out. Skills people, develop your skills! You all want to be researchers, explorers of the world, the mind don’t you? Get on with it. The deadline will not be moved.’

    So we did. We came up with a range of solutions between us. None of us used either of the two BBC micro computers available to us (we didn’t have any manuals for them) and we weren’t about to muck about with them.

    If our lecturers said something in a lecture we didn’t understand, we’d just go and bang on his office door and ask him (or her) for an explanation. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in a tutorial being run by, say, a cell membrane specialist discussing a set topic, say neuro-hormones, that wasn’t in anyway their speciality. These things like that happen in universities. What you’d learn from them is the approach, they’d take in dissecting the research being discussed to make it understandable, to analyse the data. If that wasn’t good enough, there is nothing (or wasn’t then) to stop you going to the appropriate expert for some time. Those experts who were lecturers would help for free, while those who were financially desperate PhD students (they were practically starving when I was a student, and very often, they are indeed experts in a field themselves) tended to appreciate at least a toastie and a pint!

    That ‘lesson’ served us well as undergraduates and as postgrads. We didn’t like it at the time. We moaned, we whined, and we huffed and we puffed. As soon as our dissertation were handed in, we’d all understood exactly what lesson we had learned; and some of us had put in the effort to become two-finger typists! The lesson wasn’t about word-processing, it was about our approach to learning.

    Who hasn’t been stood in the ATM line beside one of those expert lecturers or PhD students or postdocs and got them to explain something to you while you wait? Be honest. Not stopped them in the street yet? Haven’t you ever gone on the pub-hunt to find ‘them that knows’? Why not? Were you told ‘Not now, I’m busy’? That’s because they were and you need to try again later or make an appointment. We did that as undergrads all the time. And as a postgrad, I was stopped and asked for clarifications, or simply dragged into a debate, or discussion in the street regularly by undergraduates, lecturers or postdocs. The streets, pubs, cafes and buses were as much a tutorial room as an office was.

    But then, that was in the days when students didn’t have to pay and didn’t expect to be treated as customers…. perhaps stopping a tutor, demonstrator or lecturer in the street incurs additonal fees these days!

    Think about these two points. I know of scientists who, as postgraduate students have radically altered specialist fields of research by simply carrying out their research projects. Should they be required to undertake further courses and take further tests before they are permitted to explain their theory-shattering research to undergraduates?

    My final year of undergraduate study involved no text-book based lectures. Seminars were based on current research findings, often run by academics from other UK, EU or US universities. Would they be required to take a UK ‘university teaching course’? Or would the most fantastic, stimulating part of my undergraduate degree have to be destroyed?

    So the long and short of it at least in my opinion is this ‘What, if anything is needing to be fixed?’ I reckon it may just be the students who need to be given a clearer understanding of what university is about and that it is not a continuation of school.

    I took my doctorate at the age of 30. I was now part of the insecure workforce, with decades of education behind me. What I needed as a human being was a secure job, a secure home, an ability to pay my bills, enough money to afford a haircut and at least some kind of hope of a secure future. It wasn’t there. I had to leave this country to find paid work. I think I’d have put a rope round my neck if someone had said, ‘ah, but you need to sit yet another exam and then we might consider you as a potential candidate.’ Either that or thumped them!

    I mean come on! My cousin was a grandmother before she was 35! And there I was, at 30 just completing my education! And people would think it is acceptable to add on yet more demands!

    And if a student dared demand it of me, I’d have told them to take a jump from a very high building, find another mug, because just like them, at some point I needed to earn a living and function in this world as an adult, not live as a student chasing constantly moving goal posts. What do you want? Teachers or scientists? At what point are those people supposed to live, you know do things, like give birth?

  2. paulgriffithsuk says:

    There is a well worn line that students benefit by learning at institutions that also carry out cutting edge research. However, I genuinely wonder how true that is. Most of what students learn in their undergraduates (in many technical subjects) will be the stuff that was too complex for A-level, however, a lot of it won’t be anything close to cutting edge. In physics for example a student will need to learn: –
    – Thermodynamics
    – Einsteins theories of relativity
    – Quantum mechanics

    None of these are covered in any depth at A-level (unless the syllabus has been significantly extended since my day), however, the mundane details of these subjects are hardly cutting edge science. I could create similar lists for chemistry and mathematics. Put simply there is a lot of teaching that needs to be done to get students to the point where they can start examining cutting edge research in a meaningful way.

    Its probably fair to say that the average professor in a science subject at a top university is there primarily because they were good a writing papers and doing cutting edge research. For many of them (not all) sitting down with a bunch of noisy 18year olds and doing remedial teaching isn’t exactly their idea of fun! Personally I think that universities actually need to actually start breaking these two functions apart. Good researchers are not necessarily good undergraduate lecturers (and vice versa). It raises some difficult challenges such as to what level should the trainers be trained… but I suspect the alternative will lead to either good researchers being pushed away (because of teaching duties) or students paying for weak teaching.

    On a more general level, I suspect universities will probably also need to look more generally at what they teach (and how they teach it). Whilst in theory teaching a subject to a high level is worthy in itself, many students will need skills to help them get started in their careers, most likely outside their academic disciplined (e.g. IT, finance etc). Again I suspect this will involve getting trainers from outside academia as well as broadening the academic curriculum.

    • If business want ‘trained’ or taight workforce, then business should provide that training and teaching rather than externalising those costs to the community and the students themselves. Employers paid for my dad to become a time-served plumber, the employers paid every penny needed in the shipyards to ensure their men were expert welders. It is beyond me why anyone with a modicum of education would seek to justify transferring those costs onto the shoulders of the workforce. Beyone me!

      Unless, that is, they will personally profit from it.

      That’s a nice wee punt for your business there isn’t it, contracting out of ‘teaching’ to your wee company. Shame, though, because like I said, universities are not teaching institutions. My lecturers and professors were not there to teach me, they were there to inspire and guide my own efforts.

      • paulgriffithsuk says:

        Just to clarify I don’t have a small business that will profit from selling services to universities… but that aside there are some points in your comment that I agree with and others that I disagree with. Firstly I agree that ideally companies should pay for work related training in an idea world and I also agree that we don’t want the private sector profiting from university from badly written contracts (as per PFI etc).

        However I fundamentally disagree with you about the purpose of university. I think teaching is a very important part of university. By teaching I don’t mean spoon-feeding, but I do mean providing well structure lecture courses and notes with good feedback to students when required.

        I suspect that this is particularly true for technical subjects where a lot of teaching that is required (as students from A-level have generally quite a large gap to bridge before they can adequately understand a lot of cutting edge science and technology). If universities chose not to provide this, then I struggle to see what benefits they bring to undergraduates that could be attained from using a library (although I remain open to arguments here).

        Whilst I agree with you in principle about vocational training for work, I think its quite obvious that many companies are simply not doing this. The net effect is that despite sending 50% of young people to university we have a skills gap (and companies “needing” to recruit from overseas). Personally I would have thought that this could easily be fixed by getting universities to provide some additional vocational training (e.g. in IT/Finance/Legal) alongside their academic courses, thereby ensuring graduates have both solid academic credentials as well as a better more marketable practical skills.

        Finally I think that some of these additional courses could be provided by who don’t necessarily have academic backgrounds (just to clarify this is what I mean by “getting trainers from outside academia” not that they should outsource education). For example a IT course in web development could be given by somebody with a web development background as an ability to teach. This strikes me as a better compromise than forcing a professor in the computer science department with research programs in machine learning to teach ASP.NET…

        I remain open to criticism of these ideas, however, these are based on my experiences of academia and not a desire to open up revenues streams for a (non-existent) consultancy firm.

  3. Disagreeable Weasel says:

    Lot to say on this, Puffles – too much really for a comment on a blog post. Sorry!
    Academia involves research and teaching. At all levels – from postgrad to Professor – some people can be hopeless at one and brilliant at the other. Sometimes, you’ll also encounter those who are great at both.

    In recent times, universities have prioritised research because of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which determines funding. Long-serving staff who were no longer publishing enough – often because they channeled more of their energies into undergraduate teaching or the onerous administrative and management duties required in modern university departments – were ‘encouraged’ to retire. Everyone had to be ‘research-active’ if a department was to survive.

    Of course, there are only so many hours in a day. Increased pressure on academics to publish more and more to score highly in RAE, means less time to devote to the teaching side. Staff (especially newly appointed lecturers) often resent the time spent on undergraduate classes, as it means less time for their own research. In a culture of temporary contracts, caring too much about teaching to the detriment of the ‘publications’ section of your CV is often the difference between a career in academia and unemployment.

    PhD students know this too. Things have improved slightly since my day, in some disciplines at least, in that the postgrad tutor for your seminar is probably actually getting paid (albeit not very much). In my time (late 1990s), I received a Faculty Award of £1000 per annum. In exchange, I had to take three tutorials (approx 15 students each) per week and mark all their essays (usually four or five per term). We were also required to have a weekly office hour for students to drop in with any questions or problems. It takes quite some considerable time to mark and comment on 45 essays every two weeks or so. It’s also time-consuming preparing for the tutorials. In my discipline (literature), tutors were free to explore the text in any way we liked. Course conveners and lecturing staff were not prescriptive. A course description and outline was produced, with some bullet-points noting specific ‘Aims’, ‘Objectives’ and ‘Learning Outcomes’, but basically we had free rein to explore texts with our students as we saw fit. Some weeks we’d dig out a critical article and photocopy it for each member of group; some weeks we’d compile handouts with discussion points; every week there would be a couple of hours spent producing materials for our tutor groups.

    Not everyone is as conscientious, of course. There are plenty postgrad tutors who hate all time spent away from work on their thesis. They’re being sensible. Many of them were only doing the teaching because it was a condition of their funding. As a mature student with a mortgage to pay, I took on as much extra teaching as I could. It helped that I loved it. Modesty usually forbids, but I’d quite a reputation for ‘quality’ in the department, amongst students and staff, and soon found myself ‘oversubscribed’ – not just during the academic year, but also in the university’s Summer School and a couple of public evening classes. My PhD supervisor despaired of the amount of time I devoted to teaching and was always trying to persuade me to refuse – or at least cut back on – the work. But the extra tutorials paid £15 per hour, and lectures were £30. You still didn’t get paid for prep, marking, or your office hours, of course. And you certainly didn’t get paid for the emergency calls in the early hours of the morning from the Halls of Residence, when one of the Summer School students was locked in the loo threatening to overdose, or when another student had been arrested the night before her Sociology exam, and the police wanted you to come to collect her. But that was part of the job – vocation, even? :-) The fact that all that effort expended on teaching was, from a career point-of-view, completely wasteful, is a tad unfortunate. Nevertheless, I knew what I was doing and wouldn’t have changed my priorities. Students came first. There were few opportunities in my particular (somewhat geographically limited) specialism (especially for someone of my age and gender), so the chances of a secure full-time lecturing post were virtually nil in any case. And as the phrase goes, ‘it’s all academic now’, given my perilous health.

    Apologies, personal digression over. The point I’d like to make to students is, throughout your time as an undergraduate, your courses will be delivered by a number of different tutors and lecturers. They’ll all have different styles, and they’ll all have different approaches to the subject. That in itself is what university is about: immersion in a subject and a range of academic opinions within that subject; an environment where you develop knowledge and skills to engage more deeply with your chosen specialism. That’s a bit different from school. At university, you’re expected to be an adult. You’re exposed to information, but really what you do with it is dependent on your own commitment and ability. Yes, of course, especially at the beginning, you’ll probably need some guidance. There are certain techniques and skills you may need to be taught. In my old department and I suspect at most others, the courses at Level 1 were mainly delivered by those members of staff who were best able to explain the basics clearly – ‘teach’ if you like. By Honours level, you’d be assumed to have progressed beyond the need for spoon-feeding and hand-holding. What counted was lively discussion with your peers led by experts in their specialisms, and your own independent effort. Depending on the kind of student you are, you might find you learn best in a group context. Or you might be someone who learns best closeted away in a corner of the library poring over critical articles. Staff are there to help and guide you, but the onus is on you to work out how you learn most effectively, and how you can best achieve that. One size never fits all.

    With the obsession over the last couple of decades on RAE, the focus of many academic departments has perhaps concentrated too narrowly on research ‘performance indicators’. However, there are (or were) periodic Teaching Quality Assessments (TQA), where departments are visited by academics from other institutions, sitting in on classes to make sure standards are maintained. [I recall a TQA where one of our postgrad tutors was told to take a couple of days off when the assessors were due to be present, and muggins here was put in to cover his tutorials!] In contrast to the informal ad-hoc ‘training’ postgrads received in my era, nowadays there are assorted, more structured, training schemes in which postgrads might participate. Whether that has made much difference to teaching quality is debatable.

    It’s not ideal if you end up in a group where you’ve got a tutor who finds teaching difficult, or who’s distracted and worried about getting the next thesis chapter or journal article finished. But as rattlecans says, if you’ve got into university, you’re really expected to be a grown-up. If you’re not getting what you need from your tutor, you go and find someone else in the department to talk to. There’s always someone available to help. If you’re at university, you need to use your brain! You don’t go to university to be taught to regurgitate a set of ideas in order to pass an exam. You go to delve into your subject, develop your critical skills and – hopefully – quickly become confident enough to express your own ideas and contribute to knowledge of your subject. A poor tutor is not the end of the world and, in fact, can be an extremely swift and effective spur to learning!

    The ideal university department has world-class academics who can inspire and motivate – either through their impressive research and string of publications, or their gift of communicating ideas to others in a lecture hall or seminar room. Not every department will have ‘world-class’ academics, but most departments are pretty diverse and have a range of staff with different interests and attributes. Some people could have all the teacher training courses in the world and never be able to ‘teach’ effectively. Not everyone can do it. That doesn’t make them a worthless academic, however. Some are brilliant lecturers, but hopeless in a tutorial discussion. Some are great in seminars, but can’t stand up at a lectern and talk to 300 people. And others write brilliant research papers and books, but can’t express their ideas at an intelligible level for undergraduates. But they might end up with a Nobel prize! Some staff work best at Senior Honours level and are wonderful dissertation supervisors. Others enjoy the earlier levels most, or might be particularly suited to working with students having difficulties. All departments need a range of people with a range of skills.

    An unfortunate side effect of scrabbling around for money in higher education has been artificial initiatives to quantify aspects of course delivery and schemes to promote particular skill-sets. I’m not convinced the university experience can be measured in such simplistic fashion. Similarly, I question the fashionable assertion that every first year undergraduate needs to spend x number of hours a week being formally trained in Study Skills, IT, and library use (but if the university makes that compulsory, it might attract an extra bit of cash). If I was entering university and compelled to undergo such activity, I’d be pretty irritated as I’d feel there were much more interesting things to do. There’s a great library to explore for a start! Equally, I’m not convinced that compulsory ‘teacher training’ for academics is necessary or desirable. Who pays for it? The already cash-strapped postgrad student, who’s running around like a headless chicken writing conference papers, journal articles and their thesis, but who still wants to have some sort of life before they get much older and the hair turns grey? The already financially overstretched institution that’s just lost another enormous chunk of funding through government cuts? Why is it even necessary in a department full of diverse individuals with a multiplicity of different abilities and methods?

    I’ve been inside universities in 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, as student, ‘teacher’ and administrator (ugh! cursed with a range of talents!). I’ve worked with great lecturers, tutors and researchers, as well as a small number who were, quite frankly, embarrassingly inept in a classroom situation. (Some of those were in senior posts, while some were at the start of their postgrad careers). I’ve seen a lot of changes, not least in the amount of micromanaging that now goes on. I’ve also seen a change in the typical undergraduate student who comes straight from school. Far more students seem unsure about ‘what university is for’ and have expectations about the delivery of their courses which are really more appropriate to schoolwork. Many want to be directed: do A, B and C; produce it in assessment; this will ensure you pass. That’s not what a degree’s about. It’d be a shame if independent thought was further downgraded by society’s obsession with spurious targets and league tables (the curse of contemporary education – at all levels from primary school up). Do we really want universities slouching towards becoming academic factories? Higher education is not a sausage-machine for the workplace.

  4. I’ve just completed my higher education stint in Architecture (5 years of university in total with at least a year if not more of work in the middle). Throughout my experience at a ‘good’ university, I was shocked by the lack of teaching ability by those supposed to be guiding me. Quality of research or expertise in a field does not make a person a teacher. And this is not about being ‘spoon-fed’, it is about being pushed as an individual to do ones best by people who have the necessary communication skills to impart their wisdom to others. It’s difficult to give examples, especially as I’m aware that Architecture as a course is run quite differently to others. I’m also not saying that I have a solution – I understand that the majority of teaching is done by people who are appointed for their achievements in their professional field who would not take kindly to being asked to complete teacher training. I’m just saying that I have had a similar experience, and we should not be afraid of expressing our concerns.

  5. RE: paulgriffithsuk says:

    Firstly, why could it ever be the responsibility of universities to ‘fix’ a problem created by business? That is for society to insist employers train their own workforce.

    Secondly, what makes you think that it is the job of computing science lecturers to teach specific languages? If you are studying OOP in a univerity course, why aren’t you able to apply that learning to different OOP languages? That’s where you are misunderstanding what a graduate should be able to do. They shouldn’t be graduating as people who can ‘code in a specific language, and only in a specific language’. They should have the depth of understanding they need to easily pick up any language quickly and on their own. If they can’t, then I seriously question what they have been doing at university for four years (in my part of the UK, we don’t take A-levels and our undergraduate degrees take 4 years). Are they technicians or are they graduates? That’s the key difference. Graduates are not technicians, they are far more.

    What do you think science students are doing and should be capable of when they graduate? They aren’t, or shouldn’t be little factory line production machines. A science graduate should be capable of using their initiative, their minds and the scientific method. I’d be seriously pissed at an employer who said, ‘right Cans, now that you need to grow neurons rather than muscle cells in tissue culture, I’ll have you booked into to uni for another module’. I’d be looking for a new employer, one that was far more comfortable, with ensuring I had decent access to research papers on the topic of neuronal cell growth in vitro and a book budget, and a phone I could use to phone up the relevant labs with recent experience if I need to, so I could get on with my job, and developing my experience.

    Think about it. What level of education did Francis Crick and James D Watson have in 1953? As a ‘mere’ graduate Crick had developed the investigative skills necessary to earn himself a Nobel just like all the others. He wasn’t a little robot who had ‘learned to perform specific tasks’, he didn’t sit around with Watson, saying ‘Oh, I wish someone would figure this out and then they’d be able to teach us about the genetic code’.

    • paulgriffithsuk says:

      I actually agree with much of what you say the only problem is employers. Outside the big graduate recruitment programs many companies don’t want to invest any time and effort training people and often want very specific skillsets (e.g. specific programming languages/systems in IT or specific lab skills or domain knowledge for biotechnology). When they don’t find it they all to often simply recruit from overseas (and then have the nerve to complain about a skills gap).

      I agree that this is a terrible indictment on many companies in our country, but I don’t see it changing in the short term (however much you – and for that matter I – think it should). Meanwhile I tend to think that universities are in part there to help get people the skills for employment Whilst I don’t think universities should compromise on academic rigour, they could offer training to help people develop some of the tickbox skills and knowledge to get past the HR/recruitment barriers.

      • I do see it changing, but only if we make it change. There is nothing to stop us providing a good education to our young people. Nothing. Let’s imagine we have a young graudate how understands OOP and can apply it to any language – though he’s used Java. I’d have expected a small employer to at least understand that OOP does meet his needs, but since he has set himself up with ASP.Net and our graduate needs a week or two, let’s be generous and say a month, to convert, then as a tax-payer, I’d be happy to pay that graduate’s salary and even a week’s intensive course to get him language-ready. (If the employer doesn’t understand OOP and is using it, then he is a bad investment!) But I’d have a rigid rule. That funding is a loan, that will be paid back to the me, the tax-payer with interest. A buy now pay later deal. I’d insist payment kicks in once profits reach a defined level, and I’d also insist that all monies that form salaries and other ‘nice payments’ over 50K are calculated as profit for the purpose of triggering the loan payments. no tax-dodging no nothing. ;~) And I’d expect him to sign on to an ‘ethical employer’ agreement, one where the employer commits to that employees development and long-term employment and the company involves themselves in the local community, has an office in the local community and not some big industrial monstrosity, and not in the city centre (sorts out a bit of congestion I think).

        I am not willing to sit and watch companies do as they wish. It isn’t working. If companies can’t treat our society as a stakeholder, then frankly I don’t want them operating in my country. We’ve given them an inch and they’ve taken a few hundred miles!

        There may be better ways of sorting it, but until we start thinking about how to sort ourselves out, it never will. We can change our world if we want to. We just have to ‘dream and scheme’ for a bit then do it. ;~)

        My idea might not work, but until we start thinking about changing

  6. Andrew Bower says:

    Paul and Ma,

    Interesting discussion going on there. I think I’m closer to ‘Ma’ here, but not too keen on the ‘companies must be forced to do lots of things and bear the cost’ angle both of you go for (because I don’t think it needs to be as formalised).

    I was recently thinking about this issue when reading the comments to the following article: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/09/30/dont_bother_with_it_degree/

    As a software engineer I can say that my value now is dependent on the troika of (i) what I learnt from home, i.e. hacking, (ii) what I learnt from university, i.e. computer science and (iii) what I learnt from experienced colleagues on the job. Lose any of those three and it would be much diminished. But in the last case it was not formal ‘training’, it was a different kind of learning, a lifelong kind. There was plenty of good practical stuff in the degree of course, but it was not technician training and neither should it have been.

    • paulgriffithsuk says:

      The only line in what you have written that I take issue with is: –
      “….but not too keen on the ‘companies must be forced to do lots of things and bear the cost’ angle both of you go for (because I don’t think it needs to be as formalised).”

      If there is no obligation for companies to take on inexperienced students then why should they bother… particularly when other companies (and even other companies in other countries) have done the leg work for them and trained people up in the specific skills they want.

      I know that there are many great companies with good people in therm but there are an awful lot of cynical companies and box-ticking HR/recruitment people… and I’m sure this part explains the high levels of youth unemployment.

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