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What skills training is on offer in universities?
Now Playing: What skills training is on offer in universities?
The links between university research and wider society are examined. Ross argues that skills training is not about making postgraduate researchers conform to employers’ ideals, but that it is an opportunity which individuals can chose to take up on their own terms. The group goes on to discuss the types of training that cannot be provided within a university, and acknowledges that many postgraduate researchers already have extensive work experience.


Debbie: Isn’t this a problem, I mean doesn’t it link to a government concern to turn universities into money spinning bodies and to be more engaged in the world and to get out of their ivory towers. But, I mean, isn’t there a tension there because often the purpose of arts and humanities graduates is to critique society and say that, you know, ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ rather than to blithely conform to the capitalist system that is requiring these skills from them so that Britain can be internationally competitive in the economic market. I mean isn’t there an issue here?

And I think this is why this goes back to this issue of control again, in that if you view this as a set of groups that have been set up, which the government or certain councils or universities would like you to go and jump through and tick your boxes so you’ve done the courses and now you are the sort of person they want you to be. You can look at it that way – I think it is completely misreading it. I think if the PhD student or the PhD researcher takes control of this and sees ‘okay, here are some opportunities for me I can take them or I cannot take them. I can use them to take into my career, my future as I wish and if there is something out there which I do not want to do then I will not do it I will go and do something else.’ Then it becomes them using this opportunity to do whatever it is they want. I think this is really a perception and also that the student doesn’t surrender themselves to it – to take control.

Cindy: Yes, it is about taking control isn’t it. But I think it is also about recognising our limitations. You’re quite right, I mean we may not all be sitting in ivory towers anymore although we may yearn for them again. But we are not necessarily the best providers of all this training. It is relatively easy from my perspective; I teach commercially as well as teaching in the university and so I feel quite familiar with some of these terms that are being used. And I can see my PhD students and look at a group of them and think ‘you’re not that much different from some of the people I see in industry, we can work together, it will work.’ I do think in a lot of skills training or rounder training to make somebody more employable – there are limits to what we can do. It is the off campus experience that is going give them that real feel for a particular area or a particular industry. I think the trouble is that, maybe not the trouble, maybe the advantage is that students very often don’t think until quite late stages in their career, their doctoral career, as to where else they want to go. And it is just bridging that little tiny gap, it seems to be, between educating employers so they will take on PhD students, for the qualities and the skills and the experience they have, recognising it is going to take them a little while once they’ve jumped into a particular area to get that ‘one the ground’ experience, which we can’t ever replicate within a university because we are not an industry in that sense.  

Ross: Absolutely, I think the idea of skills training as this great panacea that is going to launch you into whatever career it is you want to do is something that we shouldn’t fall into. From personal experience, having finished a PhD and then getting the paper out and looking for non-academic jobs, one of the problems I found was either I’m having to enter at tea boy level or I’m going to be competing against people with three years experience in doing this, and I can’t possibly compete with that. And I think there were two problems there: one was I didn’t recognise the skills that I had, which might not be the direct experience, and if I’m up against someone with 5 or 10 years experience of this okay I’m at a disadvantage. But 1. recognise the skills I have which I can sell myself with, but also I think the other problem was I didn’t think about this early enough. Maybe two years into a PhD or even before start to consider ‘well what do I want to do with this? And if I want to do option A, B or C am I going to be coming out with, you know, the experience or the skills I need for that.’ And maybe taking steps, if there was something I really wanted to do in order to fill the holes which skills training cannot plug. I don’t think it detracts from the skills training programme, I just think that it needs a bit of a reality when we come to look at it and see skills training as the end in itself, but something that is part of the whole experience of being a PhD and becoming whatever it is you want to become.

Cindy: I think in a way that is embedded in the undergraduate experience so much more now because they are more used to the idea of formalised career training. I know we are talking about skills here rather than career training but there is this huge overlap. I think undergraduates coming through are more used to the idea that they going to go out and they are going to do placements and they are going to get some experience from the ‘real world.’ And so I suspect from that point of view this is going to become easier – that people going into a doctorate are unlikely never to have worked, they will have done something even if it is unpaid work or volunteer work or a placement of some sort. And so I think the culture is changing around that. Certainly I see more in my students coming through, particularly in doctorate students coming through, an assumption that they will be doing something else as well for some of the time. And it has got to be all to the good in terms of… I mean yeah great for employers but also great for students who can then think ‘I don’t want to do that or I do want to do that’ – they make the choices.

Ross: Absolutely. I think one of the dangers we fall into is seeing PhD students as this typical sort of 23 year old about to embark on three years and two as whatever age they are as someone whose life begins and ends at the university. PhD students are at all stages of their career, some have had 20 or 30 years working in other things before they have come and done their PhD. Some are straight from doing their Masters or their BA. But you are right, they not only have their life experiences behind them but also life experiences while they are doing their PhD and it is looking at the individual as a whole and not saying ‘you’re a PhD student, we must give you these skills therefore you can go and work.’ I think it is really looking at a very bespoke approach to the individual and how we can better develop that.

Cindy: Absolutely.