'Skills revolution' poses dilemma for universities, says Tony Tysome
The Government this week signalled a cultural revolution in higher education as it unveiled its plans for reskilling the nation.
But in the week in which the Government published its response to the Leitch report on skills and moved to give further education colleges the unprecedented power to award higher education qualifications, universities faced a clear choice: embrace the £5 billion skills agenda or leave it to colleges and the private sector.
Some commentators suggested that nothing short of a revolution would be required if higher education were to deliver on Lord Leitch's target of degree-level qualifications for at least 40 per cent of all adults by 2020, compared with under one third today.
Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said that a revolution was needed to support the development of higher education courses designed to meet the skills needs of employers and employees. "It has to be realised this is a different kind of higher education. It is the greatest challenge facing universities and business and industry in a generation," Mr Brown said.
"Many vice-chancellors are saying that this is all too high-risk. If they decide to take that position, then the private sector will continue to take this market. Universities have to decide how much of a loss that would be."
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said the Leitch agenda "will require a huge culture change", but added that universities had a "significant role" to play.
Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills John Denham said this week that he wanted a "skills revolution", with employers dictating the terms. Employers will be given the "purchasing power to shape what our country supplies by way of skills and qualifications". But the investment required would "far exceed the Government's direct contribution."
A Universities UK spokesman commented: "We have expressed concern that there is as yet little evidence that employers have an appetite to pay in the future for what they do not have to pay for at present - particularly at degree level and above."
In a further challenge to universities, the Further Education Bill, which will give colleges the power to award their own foundation degrees, had its third reading in Parliament last week and is expected to reach the statute books shortly.
Currently, foundation degrees must be validated by universities. But the reforms allow colleges to go into competition with universities and will give them a major role in delivering the qualification to an expected 100,000 students by 2010. Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development for the Association of Colleges, argued that giving colleges foundation degree awarding powers would force universities to respond to the skills agenda.
"It puts universities on their guard to sharpen up their act and not be too complacent about their position," he said.
Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University and former Higher Education Minister, said that she was firmly opposed to the change.
"Universities and colleges have different missions, and those missions should not be muddled up. Further education is a very important sector, and the Leitch agenda represents a huge challenge for it. But it should not resort to mission-drift."
Baroness Blackstone said that Leitch's 40 per cent adult-participation target would prove "very demanding" and could turn out to be unrealistic.
The Government's response to the Leitch report was due to be announced after The Times Higher went to press.