Do universities fail science students?

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President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawk...

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There is a very interesting article on the THES website today – “So last century” – which says that universities are failing students because they teach them in such a compartmentalised way.

Whether the study is conducted by the CBI in the UK or by commercial for-profit educational providers drumming up business for their remedial post-baccalaureate job-training services, everyone seems to acknowledge that today’s students are good test-takers but lack the workplace essentials necessary for the 21st century. These include people skills (especially in diverse global contexts), communication skills, collaborative skills, analytical skills, networking skills, an ability to synthesise information across a wide range of evidence, and even the most elementary skills, such as how to write a great job application letter and curriculum vitae or represent their character and talent at a job interview. No wonder they face the career centre with such trepidation.

Well, while the article is well written and an interesting read I think it is fundamentally wrong.

My objection is not just the standard, liberal, view that actually universities are not meant to be factories turning out people fit for labour (albeit higher labour) – though it is partly that. Good employers invest in their employees in any case and do not expect them to be delivered for free as the fully formed article.

I certainly do not believe that there was some golden age where graduates were being turned out with all these skills either. One only has to look at the somewhat doolally behaviour – from Newton onwards – of some of the greatest scientists to know that academic excellence and socialisation are always the easiest of bedfellows.

But it is more fundamental – degrees have to be specialised, certainly in science, because they also have to be, at least partially, grounded in research and a preparation for research.

My first degree was in Astrophysics. “Communication skills, collaborative skills…” and all the rest of it have nothing very much to do with cosmology and every minute that would be spent teaching me about them would be a minute wasted in preparing me for being an astrophysist.

The fact I never became an astrophysist is hardly the point – there would not have been much point to an astrophysics degree if it at least did not offer that path.

Science degrees need to be specialised because science is ever-more complex and specialised. Some scientists think this may be a temporary thing – in A Brief History Of Time Stephen Hawking suggests that further scientific advance might simplify our theories – but there is no sign of that at present.

So, if universities are to produce scientists they have to focus on science and not think of themselves as pre-office work trainers.