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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 8. 10 June 1970

Educating to Meet Demands

Educating to Meet Demands

Two difficulties that a university must face when considering what useful functions it should undertake are, first, the difficulty of knowing or discovering what utilities should best be pursued and, second, the difficulty of responding flexibly to changes in these as changes are called for. The demands of governments, employers, lobbying groups and their spokesmen are often clamorous, often also changeable, sometimes ill-informed. The university has to be able to determine the real merits of the demands put to it. Most group requests contain at least an element of self-promotion. Few groups are entirely devoid of the taint of status-seeking. Almost all tend to call for an education for all the group that is strictly needed only for a select fraction.

Another problem in educating to meet demands is that needs may change quite sharply. Two or three years ago it was possible to ask (and, if my memory serves me correctly, a Minister of the Crown did publicly ask) the universities why they were producing so many more geologists than the country could possibly employ. At that time the reply could be little more than an embarrassed silence. At this present moment, however, the demand for geologists exceeds the graduation rate.

The pressures on the university come, of course, from various sources. Employers may want one thing, students another. The university is not merely a factory for producing units of manpower trained to do directly useful tasks. It is in institution of higher learning, and not a few students come to it simply for that reason-to study a subject for its own interest. In a well-to-do society the right to such an education ought surely to be as automatic for those who can benefit from it as the right to vaccination or to an old-age pension. Yet this is not universally agreed and only ten days ago a writer to the Auckland Star was denying it on the grounds that a university education was of benefit only to the student who took it and not to the community at large.

Despite the sometimes conflicting requirements of employer and student, despite the difficulty of establishing real needs, and despite the periodic violent fluctuations in demand for graduates in specific fields, the universities must take account of the national requirements for trained people. If they default in this, they cannot expect, and, in my view, do not deserve the massive support the state has recently accorded them. Up to now serious attempts at establishing real needs for university graduates have generally been made only after prompting by the University Grants Committee. I wish I could say that I thought the answers given by the universities have invariably been the result of dispassionate study. I believe university groups as a whole have been slow to come to grips with the questions of what sorts of graduate they should be producing and how many of each. The answers cannot be exact, of course, but even rough answers would be better than none. Many university academics, however, are more interested in preserving and extending the established pattern of their own discipline than investigating new patterns that might be more generally valuable to the community.