Voice needed on skills councils

July 27, 2007

The Government's long-awaited response to Lord Leitch's review of skills last week proposed a course of action that ministers hope will lead the country into a skills "revolution" ("Embrace Leitch or lose out to FE, sector warned", July 20).

However, while the Government's commitment to this pressing issue is welcome, it seems that the report contains little new and still singularly fails to address the issue of representation of the higher education sector on some of the key delivery bodies.

The proposals for a demand-led system are a positive step forward, but that demand has to be clearly expressed, medium to long-term and sustainable.

We at the University of Central Lancashire are happy to work with any number of partners to deliver high-quality skilled graduates, but linking employer "demand" with consumer "choice" is not necessarily going to be straightforward.

The Government cannot dictate what individuals should study. Students enrol at academic institutions of their own free will; they choose their courses and they will decide on their future.

University students are adults and must be treated as such. It is important that policymakers keep in mind that our students are now paying customers and, as such, they expect to have a large degree of control over their university experience and what courses they study.

Increased tuition fees have ensured that students, now more than ever, will exercise their rights to choose a course that best suits them. We need to ensure that our short-term economic needs do not dictate which courses and opportunities should or should not be on offer.

If we are to deliver a significant step change in the UK skills base, it is essential that we find solutions that break down the barriers between education, business and government quangos.

The Government's reliance on the sector skills councils is problematic because not all SSCs have higher education representatives - which they should have if they are to work together with universities.

For a "skills revolution" to take place, all SSCs must have higher education representatives.

The real challenge for the Government will now be to develop a sustained dialogue between business, higher education, SSCs and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills so that all can work together. The Government's statement last week does not identify clear ways of achieving this.

The new Administration has made a good decision by rightly making skills a priority on its agenda. Universities are crucial in helping to deliver that agenda - but they have to have seats at the tables.

It will only be through working collaboratively, and with a long-term focus, that we will achieve a true skills revolution.

Malcolm McVicar
Vice-chancellor
University of Central Lancashire

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