Friday, 3 January 2014

Is The Duke of York right that universities are about education not training and don’t prepare people for work in the way technical colleges do?

Mary Curnock Cook,
UCAS Chief Executive
For most of my career, I have worked in businesses and organisations where the most valuable skills for key workers and managers have been the ability to think clearly, solve problems, communicate ideas and arguments powerfully, and to strip down an issue to its fundamental elements using logic and confidence.

Of course there are many careers where technical skills are needed and there are many ways to acquire these through vocational qualifications in school, further education courses, apprenticeships and a wide range of degree courses.  And Prince Andrew is right to say that University Technical Colleges give people the choice of the workplace or higher education after completing the course.

But in my experience, many young people don’t develop a clear idea of what career they want to pursue until long after they’ve left school or college.  Sometimes, it’s only through extended education and learning that they discover enough about themselves and their talents to make the decisions about the job roles in which they might excel and be fulfilled.  And the truth is that the majority will probably work in many different sectors over their working life.

My own career has taken me through international sales and marketing (biotechnology), the food and drinks sector, the hospitality sector, education and skills policy and now higher education, as the chief executive of UCAS.  At 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do and had no concept of the variety of roles or sectors that were available to pursue.

Looking back, I regret going into the world of work straight after school and leaving university until I was in my forties.  Not because I didn’t love working, even when I started on the bottom rung of the ladder.  My regret stems from my lack of confidence in my skills and potential.

Tucked away in a file somewhere, I still have a single page (typed on a manual typewriter) of thoughts about marketing the products that my firm was trying to bring to the market.  I was 21; I was the office secretary and general dogsbody, but I had read a book about marketing and it got me thinking.  I spent a Saturday in my office feverishly applying all these thoughts to our own innovative range of biotechnology products which were being successfully manufactured but not reaching their intended market.

A colleague found my typescript and showed it to the Managing Director.  The Managing Director brought it up at an office meeting.  I remember blushing furiously and feeling deeply ashamed and humiliated.  In my mind, my thoughts were the worthless musings of an inexperienced underling.  But I was wrong.  The paper was widely praised and became the foundation stone of our marketing strategy.  This was just one of many examples that I can reflect on where I believe a degree education (in whatever discipline) would have given me the confidence to discuss and share my ideas without the fear of looking naive.

I have spoken to so many people of all ages studying vocational and academic degrees at universities in the UK and I have read hundreds of current students’ entries to our writing competition last summer.  I have been struck by so many stories of growing personal confidence, minds liberated to create and express opinions and arguments, the unshackling of expression through a less structured curriculum – and by the uncovering of sheer talent in students who least expected to find it - in themselves.  I have learned how many students value the broadening of their horizons that comes from living independently from their families, and in an internationally and culturally diverse community.

While there is no denying that technical training is important in many fields, a degree in any discipline also trains and exercises the brain in a way that provides the foundation for success in a wide variety of careers. It comes through developed personal confidence, creative and logical thinking, and the ability to assimilate facts and ideas in a coherent way.  These skills are as essential to a wide variety of careers as technical skills are for specialist technical roles.



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