Leader: Vocation is not just foundation

January 16, 2004

Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the education secretary, put some welcome flesh on the bones of the government's higher education policy this week. For those with doubts about top-up fees, it is essential to know what makes such upheaval necessary - particularly if they suspect that the cause is an arbitrary target that will bring an unwanted mushrooming of degree courses. The message from on high was that the future is vocational, the economy needs it and the people will demand it. The aim is to counter the Tory argument (supported by more than a few in the Labour Party) that what the country actually needs is more plumbers and fewer media studies graduates.

As Mr Clarke has suggested, this is a false dichotomy: the economy needs more tradespeople and graduates. And, while plumbing courses may be bulging at the seams this year, the same cannot be said for other lower-level vocational courses. Modern apprenticeships are much less popular than the government had hoped they would be, and further education colleges are struggling to fill many of their traditional programmes. Young people want a degree, albeit in a vocational subject, and employers continue to value the qualification.

Where many in higher education will part company with ministers is on the assumption that foundation degrees will satisfy this demand. True, the numbers taking them have doubled in the past year to 24,000, but this is not to say that they will be content to quit higher education after two years. Aspirations cannot be managed to suit spending plans, and the experience of the initial round of courses suggests that most will want to go on to a full degree.

That is why the cap on growth in the latest brief for the Higher Education Funding Council for England is so disappointing. There will be 10,000 extra places for foundation degrees, but nothing at higher levels.

Indeed, while Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, was welcoming the announcement of another increase in student numbers, his boss was instigating an investigation into why universities were overshooting their targets. If the government is serious about its target of 50 per cent entering higher education by the age of 30, that is precisely what they should do.

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