Adding to the debate on higher education for life or for work

Posted on 01/08/2011


An edited version of this post was published by The Guardian Higher Ed on August, 23rd, 2011 :


A recent article in The Guardian (, following some points of the White Paper, has sparked a debate on the role of HEIs. Should they train students for life or give them skills for work?

Coming from the Business Schools world, this is one of the strangest questions I have ever seen in my industry. There are many academic areas where providing skills for work is obvious: business, engineering, architecture, communication, art, etc… In these faculties, we train students to get the job they want when they graduate, which means to be immediately operational, and we also provide them with skills that they may not use now but that could be useful in the future: only a few of them for example will be involved in the definition of the strategy of their first employer but they may be in the future and nevertheless, it is important for them to decipher the strategic decisions taken by the top management; same for leadership skills. Their future employers expect that these young graduates will be immediately skilled for their jobs, outside of the usual warm-up period to understand the specific processes, tools and culture of the company. That’s why also students and companies are now favouring long periods of internship and “sandwich-years” to make them even more employable when they graduate. In another discipline, would you imagine a doctor not to be immediately operational? Of course, old doctors will be more experienced but young ones may be more aware of the latest discoveries and techniques. And in many countries, this is in fact because they are not ready for work that PhD students have more difficulties to find a job than Masters students, although their knowledge is deeper.

In Business Schools, we design our pedagogy around 3 categories of skills: Knowing, Doing and Being. Working on this triptych ensures that students will get the appropriate knowledge (expected by companies), will know how to apply it directly in a professional context and finally will behave as it is expected from a young professional or manager. This is how the aims of a unit or course are designed and the content must be built to ensure that the 3 components will be present, even in “technical” subject such as finance or accounting.

I understand that some academics are afraid that some disciplines or courses may be in jeopardy if this “reality principle” becomes the norm. And so what? At a time where students will have to pay a lot to study, where they may not even be sure to enter the university of their choice, isn’t it the minimal duty of academic institutions to provide a clear professional future to their graduates? If it means that there will be fewer students in medieval history or in palaeontology for example, the less chosen disciplines may finally reassess what they are teaching and why they are teaching it to make themselves attractive again to the students. And from the pure economical point of view, redirecting the budget of a university from the disciplines which are less leading to employment to the ones more in tune with the demands of the corporations can only be good for the economy of a country.