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Thoughts as the UW System engages in "Strategic Planning"


Thoughts on UW System Strategic Planning

The growing focus on workforce needs and how the System can address concerns about the state economy are laudable, and we can’t ignore the role of our universities in preparing students for the world of work.

But these economic concerns have become so dominant that they have distorted conversations about the future of the system; what is most troubling to me, however, is that based on a NSF study I’m conducting on the so-called skills gap in WI, policymakers don’t really understand the skills needs of the business community, and their subsequent policy prescriptions for higher education are wildly off the mark.

Employers we have interviewed want a combination of technical expertise, cognitive capacities like critical thinking, interpersonal skills like communication and teamwork, and also strong work ethics and the ability to continually learn.

A liberal arts education like those provided throughout the UW System, with its extended time frame and exposure to multiple fields, provides this complex suite of skills. Indeed, many in our study made the distinction between training and education – short-term training is good in a pinch, but trainees inevitably lack solid grounding in the principles of a field, and extended time for practice and mentoring.

This is not to argue everyone should get a 4-year degree, but that even students in 1- or 2-year technical college programs benefit from general education courses. However, without the rigorous disciplinary foundation acquired in 4-year programs, students with shorter-term credentials do hit a ceiling in the workforce relatively quickly in many fields. So if the system proceeds with a 3-year program, understand that there will be trade-offs in the types of competencies students will be able to acquire that ultimately would serve them well in their careers. Education takes time.

So a real focus on workforce needs would require the continued support of comprehensive educational programs that integrate technical expertise with coursework in the arts, humanities and social sciences; ideally, programs would also provide extensive opportunities for hands-on inquiry-based learning, which is happening in programs like BioCore and will ultimately cultivate the full complement of competencies that are truly in demand in the workplace.

That all said, higher education and the UW System are certainly not perfect, and could benefit from better career counseling (like the new L&S Career Initiative), more regular conversations with industry, and more hands-on and active learning.

To continue to move in the current direction – where liberal arts are disparaged and seen as out of touch and short term training is viewed as more attuned to workforce needs, will ultimately harm the economy, student prospects, and our great state. And such a narrowly economic view of education flies in the face of the WI Idea, where research is celebrated for its value in producing knowledge as well as its applications to the concerns of the community.

They were onto something over 100 years ago, today too much ground has been ceded to the skills gap advocates. This is evident in how today’s conversation is framed almost entirely about workforce and economic development. Re-take the initiative and the framing around the UW System’s future and base it in the more comprehensive view of the WI Idea, rather than taking the lead from the politicians currently in power – a message that happens to be counter-productive to their own focus on the health of the business community.


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© 2015 by Matthew T. Hora

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