Skills and research – Are universities relevant enough?

Politicians and policy-makers have been putting pressure on universities, insisting on relevance of both research and teaching. They argue that universities must respond better to national economic and social needs in their research; and to the labour market by turning out employable students.

This dual role of universities is a juggling act for any successful higher education system. How national systems can ensure 'relevance' will be debated by global education leaders at the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, to be held on 3-5 May.

“Governments are investing a lot of tax dollars in higher education and they want to see results. They want impact, that’s natural,” said Richard Armour, secretary general of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee. Yet, “balancing institutional autonomy and national priorities is quite a tricky issue to deal with”, he added.

At the same time relevance of high-end research is hard to gauge, particularly for basic research where relevance and impact can take decades to become apparent.

“In publicly funded universities there is sometimes a tension between institutional autonomy and national priorities, yet if they enjoy a high level of public funding the government and tax payer expect to have some influence in the direction universities are pursuing, “ Armour told University World News.

But it is far from clear where the balance lies, and it is different for each country, depending on country size, its stage in economic development and other economic and political factors, said Caroline Chipperfield, senior advisor at the British Council in London.

“Education systems respond to governments and make different decisions depending on the country,” she said.


Relevance has also become important in curriculum design and teaching, in order to prepare students for the labour market. This often requires other skills – so-called soft skills – in addition to the academic, technical and analytical skills traditionally imparted by universities.

“It’s hard to think that every higher education system should focus on skills. But it is the primary driver,” said Chipperfield.

But making graduates employable goes beyond even academic knowledge and soft skills. As Erik Bloom, a senior economist at the World Bank’s human development and economic management department in Washington DC, points out, “we don’t know much about improving relevance and skills.”

So far there are no specific indicators for employability that measure it in any useful way, he said. “It is not fair to ask a university to be accountable for their graduates’ employment rates, as so many other factors dictate this, such as quality of entrance and the condition of the economy.”

“So many World Bank higher education projects say their goal is employability but what does that mean?” Studies need to be carried out that separate employability from employment itself, in order to come up with employability indicators, said Bloom.

Universities “need to ask: are we researching the right things; and are people studying the right things and are they learning well? Honestly, there is no easy answer to this,” Bloom said.

Are we doing the right thing?

According to Armour, “graduates these days have to be prepared for different types of situations, several career changes in their lifetime and they will have to expect to continue to work throughout their working lives.” Yet, often, institutions, policy-makers and the public get caught up in the debate about which subjects are more useful or relevant to the economy.

This may be the wrong approach, Bloom said.

Particularly in developing countries, what is important is not the difference between science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduates and non-STEM graduates – all are learning to be analytical – but the quality of teaching and learning. Unless students learn to apply the facts they have learned, the courses are not very useful, Bloom argues. “Quality is very important,” he said.

In a country like Vietnam, students are already questioning what is being taught and how. They are aware that the education they are getting may not be serving them well, yet they are unable to get the right information to make better choices – they are like consumers who do not know what they are buying, Bloom said.

By the time they graduate and start looking for jobs it is too late.

And it is often forgotten that university education needs to be relevant to a particular student for that student to be successful.

“People jump to the wrong conclusions, for example, over the value of IT, or under-valuing something else. But without proper information students are not going to make the best choices for themselves,” Bloom said.

Post-conflict challenges

Countries emerging from conflict have particular problems in ensuring relevance, and at the same time must build up their higher education systems from scratch.

One example is Afghanistan. In the immediate post-Taliban period, the country first had to respond to the crucial need for infrastructure and access, according to Osman Babury, Afghanistan’s deputy minister for academic affairs at the country’s higher education ministry.

A decade and a half later “the next phase is how to enrich higher education in terms of creativity and innovation”, he said.

It was clear the country needed to strengthen research to respond to Afghanistan’s needs and despite severe budgetary problems. “There is no alternative except for higher education to be engaged in research and innovation,” he said. “There is much to be done as the country’s development has been neglected for decades.”

What is relevant now, is quality, he said. “Now we would like to stress quality of education and higher education. We did not pay enough attention to the [quality] of graduates before because we were under pressure on access and the need to include women and vulnerable groups and so on in our expansion of higher education.”

“The demand in the labour market for skilled and semi-skilled labour is very high and our graduates could not fulfil the requirements of employers, so people from neighbouring countries came in for the jobs.”

Uphill battle

“Security is a very critical issue for us. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is passing through a very hard time,” he said referring to Western troop withdrawals since 2014. International stakeholders and programmes are leaving and that leads to joblessness especially among young people.”

Graduate and youth joblessness is as high as 64%, according to British Council reports.
“Employability is a multidimensional issue,” he said, admitting that the higher education system neglected soft skills.

It is an uphill battle. The country recognised that the majority of disciplines and their curriculum were outdated and introduced a new curriculum in 2012. “But we see that this curriculum is not respected sufficiently by institutions because of a lack of resources, infrastructure and teachers,” he said.

“Our concern is quality. Institutions are trying to respect our requirements, but not being able to supervise them causes dilution of quality, so we would like to be more organised to focus on quality and focus on employability.”