Departmental revamp needs to Leitch Report's focus on the knowledge economy, writes Rebecca Attwood
Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week put universities on a clear footing as engines of economic growth. In a move welcomed as a sign of increased recognition for the sector, Mr Brown announced a new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), to be headed by John Denham.
But there were concerns that overemphasis on economically valuable skills and research might be to the detriment of pure academic knowledge and lead to neglect of education's wider social benefits.
Mr Brown announced the new department in the context of the need for Britain to "rise to the challenges" of today's competitive global economy. One of the DIUS's first acts will be to publish a long-awaited government response to the Leitch Report, which Mr Brown commissioned at the Treasury. It called for more than four in ten adults to have a degree-level qualification by 2020; less than a third have one today.
In a House of Lords debate coinciding with the DIUS's creation, Lord Leitch said higher education would have a key part to play in improving the UK's "desperately weak" skills base. High-level skills were "vital to leadership, management and innovation, key drivers of productivity and creators of wealth". There was also a social imperative, he said.
Baroness Sharp urged caution, asking whether there was a danger of moving "too far from the present position where universities train students in generic skills and companies train them in company-specific skills, to one where the individual, and ultimately the economy, is locked into a narrower, more specific skills set."
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chair of the group Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said the DIUS "indicates that a Brown Government is serious about massively increasing the numbers in the workforce with higher-level qualifications, a challenge that our universities can undoubtedly fulfil."
John Taylor, from the Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy at Southampton University, said the new emphasis could be "greeted with concern by those who view the purpose of universities, and of education more generally, as critical within a civilised, inclusive society, and as something more than just an economic driver".
Lewis Elton, honorary professor of higher education at University College London, asked: "Is the knowledge economy the only master that universities are to serve?" If so, he said, this would be "anathema to many academics".
Boris Johnson, Conservative Higher Education Spokesman, said Mr Brown was right to value universities as drivers of economic growth but should not forget they "are there to enrich people's lives intellectually; they are not just laboratories for skills".
Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat shadow Secretary of State for Universities, said: "While one of John Denham's first tasks will be to address the UK's skills crisis, our country must also retain our tradition of academic excellence."
The Leitch report says that at degree level and above "individuals and employers should pay the bulk of the additional cost" of up-skilling. The Government is keen to increase funding by employers.
Earlier this year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England wrote to universities to announce 5,000 more student places on a co-funded basis in 2008/09, with a target of 50 per cent of the money coming from employers.
The market for which universities could compete is worth about £5 billion a year, according to a recent report from the Council for Higher Education and Industry.
But the Higher Education Policy Institute has warned of the risks of co funding concerns echoed in Universities UK's published response to Leitch.
It raises doubts about whether employers would be willing to pay for the bulk of further expansion or would be "willing to work with universities to address the financial risks involved in developing new provision where future demand is uncertain".