The View

Universities should not become glorified vocational training colleges

Vocational training schools do good work but the idea that universities should be adapted to this role is misguided at best, dangerous at worst

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 1:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 1:29am

Should universities be glorified vocational training colleges whose main task is to prepare students for business careers? This week Shinzo Abe's government attempted to answer the question with an announcement that Japan's public universities are being re-tooled to focus on scientific research and vocational training.

Abe's vision of what universities should be doing is widely shared in other countries, not least in business communities where you often hear dismissive talk about "Ivory Towers". However the idea that universities should be reduced to being mere vocational training schools is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

I have nothing against training schools. Indeed, Hong Kong has an admirable network of vocational training institutes but there is a problem in confusing their role with that of universities.

Abe and his colleagues are worried about a skills shortage and seem to believe that Japan's competitiveness is being held back by universities focusing on liberal studies and engaging in research that lacks a so-called practical purpose.

However, the glory of the finest universities is that, at the undergraduate level, they provide a rounded education and inspiration for some of the smartest young people who will later enter a variety of professions and businesses but are not required to make career decisions at a young age; they can do so later on the basis of a comprehensive education, preparing them for a variety of options.

Great universities are a caldron of ideas and experimentation, some of which leads to the invention of new devices and new ways of thinking but, hopefully, all of which enriches human life with intellectual vigour.

In my experience as an employer, I have minimal interest in paper qualifications but a great deal of interest in understanding the thinking of potential recruits and their ability to tackle problems. Of course it is desirable to employ experienced people with specific knowledge of your industry but at the entry level this experience is most unlikely to have been acquired in a classroom with a shiny, vocationally specific curriculum.

I have more experience working on the employee's side of the fence, beginning as a young journalist in the days when practically no one joined media organisations with something called a journalism degree. I still don't understand how they manage to fill up four years with these courses but I am very familiar with the much shorter course that used to be offered, at least in Britain, training novice journalists in practical skills such as shorthand and speed typing, a rudimentary rundown of the laws of libel and some idea of how to put together a decent news story.

Nowadays many media organisations will not employ new entrants without a fancy journalism degree but I remain highly sceptical of their value. This is not to say they are a waste of time but to affirm that there are better ways of training journalists. I don't believe that my contemporaries were somehow less qualified for their jobs than today's journalism graduates. Today I am in the food business where we send people off for training and we do on-the-spot training but I cannot, for the life of me, see what value would be added by expecting new entrants to come armed with food degrees.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government also appears to be exercised by the relatively low ranking of their universities in international surveys. Here again, the government has been fooled by what increasingly looks like something of a racket because there is growing evidence that many of these surveys rely excessively on citations of academic work that are vulnerable to considerable manipulation.

The peer review and citation racket involves outright fraud and borderline fraud designed to boost the alleged influence of a particular academic's work. This largely revolves around the self-obsessed world of academic journals, while citations of academic studies in the general media are ignored.

Other aspects of university rankings are less easy to manipulate as they include considerations of peer ranking of their achievements. However, these rankings are intrinsically rather subjective, with a much criticised bias towards the English speaking world.

If Mr Abe is so obsessed about these rankings he should first understand more about them. Meanwhile, in Japan, there is something of a backlash to this latest move but I rather fear that the Japanese government's views have considerable resonance here in Hong Kong.

Hopefully the more enlightened members of the local business community will speak up in support of our fine universities, which are centres of excellence in their own right and have supplied recruits for leading positions in business, government and the professions without the constraints of a vocational training straitjacket.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster