Big vision of bosses' champion

December 5, 1997

Mary Lord has a "big thinking" vision for universities. And it will not be welcomed by many in higher education, admits the Training and Enterprise Council policy chief.

Director of education and training at the TEC national council, Ms Lord's soundbites are provocative. Her vision includes calls to "turn institutions inside out", "smash down ivory towers", and open universities' "locked-up resources" to the wider community. She wants higher education to "think the unthinkable".

"But I am not talking about scrapping universities," she insists, almost as an afterthought. "I am just talking about a radical change in the way they do their business."

In essence a champion of employers' interests, it is little wonder that Ms Lord is unpopular with many in higher education. Her quest to push business's concerns and to provide the catalyst for the government's lifelong learning revolution has led to a seeming disregard for academic autonomy.

But higher education institutions would do well to listen to her, it seems. Ms Lord's report for the Department for Education and Employment, Developing a Learning Society, has been hailed as an "outstanding analysis" by civil servants drafting the lifelong learning white paper. And she believes she is singing from the same hymn sheet as the ministers.

"There has been a shift," she says. "It is not just about a change of government, but there is a whole new set of MPs and ministers prepared to challenge the status quo. The time is right."

Ms Lord says the fundamental aim must be to widen access to education. She believes that to ensure a successful economy, the UK needs 50 per cent of its workforce participating in some kind of formal learning - that is treble the number currently involved. She believes that the basic entry requirement for the labour market should be formal education at level three (A-level/advanced level GNVQ) standard, so participation in higher level study must also increase dramatically. "The competition agenda leaves us without a choice," Ms Lord says.

Her vision would mean setting up a "national qualification system" for higher education. It would be underpinned by a system of credit accumulation and transfer allowing people to pick up units and points towards degrees from different institutions at their leisure. "People in work might not need the whole chunk of a degree straight away," she says.

This would not require prescribing a national curriculum, but a "national system of accreditation" would be needed. "If we accredit in terms of learning outcomes," Ms Lord says, "universities can hang on to their individual degrees, while employers will know what degree they are buying."

The University for Industry and individual learning accounts would be crucial to the plan. "The UFI will offer much more access to higher level learning in places outside universities," she says. "If they get it right, the UFI could develop the transferable national higher education qualifications framework. And individual learning accounts would give an entitlement to public funding directly to the individual, not the institution."

Ms Lord's boss, TEC national council chief executive Chris Humphries, is a board member of the government's UFI design and implementation group. Individual learning accounts are known to be under serious discussion by the government's lifelong learning advisers and ministers.

"The vision requires big thinking in terms of how universities offer their provision in the long term," Ms Lord says. "Too much has been locked up in institutions, and it needs to be accessible to the masses, not just the elite. If we don't do it, someone else will."

More immediately, the "work readiness" of full-time graduates is at the top of her agenda. "We want to build work-related learning into every undergraduate curriculum," Ms Lord says.

A first step, she believes, would be to draft business professionals into teaching in higher education. "Higher education needs a different type of professional," she says. Existing academic staff would not be subject just to teacher training but also to compulsory work experience. "Some lecturers have never had a proper job out in the real world. Lecturers are expected to provide support and guidance to their students with no experience."

She is looking to Sir Ron Dearing's proposed Institute for Teaching and Learning to develop plans for industrial placements for higher education staff, as part of a wider lecturer training regime. "How are we to support work-based learning when, for too many academics, lecturing is just a side-line? It seems crazy that you do not have to be qualified to teach in higher education."

Also essential, she says, are work experience programmes for all undergraduates, as an "assessed and recognised part of the degree qualification itself".

"We have to try to grow the number of work experience opportunities for all undergraduates, whatever their course," she says. "It will be hard getting work experience for classics and philosophy students, but these people may need it more than anyone."

Ms Lord wants to establish a "common core" of employability skills and generic competences. "If we had some kind of national profile, it could be accredited," she says. "Undergraduates should be expected to make sure, during their three years at university, that they have evidence of basic skills that can be accredited. We can validate all that the undergraduate does outside the lecture theatre."

She says a key skills framework could be devised with National Vocational Qualification-based accreditation. "We would eventually like to see that when one qualifies for a degree, it will (show) that one has the NVQ competences as well as the subject knowledge."

The machinery for Ms Lord's vision already seems to be in place. The DFEE has published its national development agenda, setting its priorities for pilot projects for the next few years. Bids for government grants from TECs, in partnership with higher education institutions, to set up work-based learning programmes and key skills development are flooding in.

Ultimately, Ms Lord believes, higher education does not have a choice. "If we carry on with a higher education system producing graduates that industry and the economy say are not good enough, it is not the best use of public investment. There needs to be a significant shift in the mindset."

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