Reading for a degree was far removed from the harsh reality of the workplace, with few directed hours, little discipline, and perceptions of value being academic creativity and conceptual output. The greatest barrier to completing a degree was getting a place in a university, with restricted numbers and access largely driven by fee paying public schools and (more recently) highly selective grammar schools, with a child's potential measured at the obscenely young age of 11 (or cynically the wealth and investment of parents in private tutoring).
Once accepted by university, fees were covered, maintenance grants given, and success was, largely, guaranteed. To fail (or be sent down) was virtually unheard of, with just the occasional third class or ordinary degree awarded as punishment for very poor performance.
Links between the workplace and university were tenuous, with employers recruiting graduates during a 'milk round' being prepared to invest heavily over many years on training courses to bridge the gap between education and work.
Graduates were valued for their intellect, rarity, and wider knowledge rather than specific skills or technical expertise. Subject specialism was introduced through education undertaken post-graduation to access professions like law, medicine, or accountancy. Employers invested heavily in every graduate, but with total graduate numbers being a small proportion of the total workforce and promising to sit at the apex of any organisation, this cost was accepted as sensible. The gap between university and real life was vast.
The growth of universities and subsequent graduate numbers to more than 30% of the workforce led to the expectation of a graduate qualification for most skilled jobs. The movement of universities into traditionally vocational areas from nursing and child care, to social work and accounting led to a blurring of the line between academic education and vocational training. Exemptions from professional bodies followed, furthering the confusion and distorting employer expectation for training on appointment.
Employers now expect graduates to have real work skills, technical expertise, and be able to enter the organisation with minimal cultural adjustment. Cries from employers' about the poor skills and work attitude of new graduates underline this confusion over the role of universities and the divergence of approach by traditional universities and employers' needs.
In an attempt to reduce this problem some employers focus on recruitment from the oldest (highest ranked) universities, which tends to accentuate the problem as these ancient bodies hold on to their traditional roles tighter than their financially poorer newer universities.
There is a real need for universities to bridge this expectation gap, and focus on preparing students for the workplace whilst ensuring the academic and technical skills and knowledge are appropriately embedded. This calls for a new type of institution; in many cases business focused, with additional contact, real links to employers, disciplined, and run by business people.
Several creative solutions are being put forward by entrepreneurial institutions. LCA Business School, London, for example, delivers business degrees in a business environment. Students get real business experience, working part-time while completing their degree. This work experience helps them leave university ready to enter the workplace and add value immediately.
They can also earn whilst they learn, reducing (or removing altogether) the debt that hangs around the necks of many students when they graduate. However, this means that students have a very different university life than those of old. Differentiation of student experience is no bad thing, but universities need to be honest and open to prospective students and employers; and old prejudices need to be overcome.
Dave Sexton is Principal of LCA Business School London