MPs look set to debate the role of universities amid fears that the government is wrong to exclude higher education from its Learning and Skills Bill.
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks signalled a possible Commons' debate after MPs voiced their concerns about universities' exclusion during last Thursday's committee stage of the bill.
Mr Wicks defended the bill, which sets up a new strategic planning and funding structure for post-16 education, excluding higher education. He said that the bill was judged to be unsuitable to cover autonomous institutions such as universities.
Opposition politicians say the bill is too bureaucratic and centralising. The government denies this. However, Mr Wicks appeared to imply that the bill was too centralist to apply to autonomous universities.
He said: "Higher education is a big subject. If there were to be a debate about this on the floor of the House we could say more, but I do not think that it is useful to do so at this stage."
Mr Wicks said that the national Learning and Skills Council and the 47 local councils set up by the bill would work closely with the university sector, including the Higher Education Funding Council.
He referred to a letter sent from further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone to Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Baroness Blackstone said the national council would draw on advice from the higher education sector on skills research and information.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said it was unacceptable for Mr Wicks to say "the higher education system should not play an integral part in the development of skills that industry and people need to meet the challenges of the new millennium".
The exclusion of universities from the bill is also of concern to many in higher education. Geoff Layer, professor of lifelong learning at Bradford University, said: "There are counter-tensions concerning university autonomy, but I think that we would have welcomed a recognition in the bill that there is a role for universities."
Vincent Watts, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chairman of the East of England Development Agency, said that universities had to play a greater role in the regions. He suggested channelling some university funding through Regional Development Agencies. This could be used by RDAs to buy university places in subjects key to regional economies.
The bill was still in committee stage in the Commons as The THES went to print this week.