The government has bowed to pressure to give higher education a greater say in planning post-16 education, after initially excluding it from its Learning and Skills Bill.
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks conceded last week that the government would issue guidance to the national Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to ensure that higher education institutions are consulted when it and its 47 local councils draw up their plans for post-16 education and training.
The government has been criticised for excluding higher education from the Learning and Skills Bill. Still in committee in the Commons, the bill aims to improve progression to and through post-16 education. The omission of higher education was seen as counterintuitive to the government's aim to create seamless progression from school to university.
Speaking in committee last week, Gordon Marsden (Labour, Blackpool South) said:
"It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the new LSC framework provides every opportunity for universities and other higher education institutions to be involved and consulted and to offer their expertise without challenging their autonomy."
David Chaytor (Labour, Bury North) said: "Given the sizeable budgets that are now being brought together under LSCs, it makes sense to consider how higher education can be involved - I am not suggesting a high level of involvement - in the allocation of those budgets."
Tim Boswell (Conservative, Daventry), shadow minister for further and higher education, said: "It would be unfortunate if the reforms took place and plans were established with no reference to higher education."
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) said that the government had missed an opportunity by failing to properly incorporate higher education into the bill. He said it would have helped to cement a relationship between the LSCs, regional development agencies and higher education.
Ministers have attempted to justify the exclusion of higher education by saying that largely autonomous universities would fit uneasily into the proposed post-16 structure, which is based upon a powerful LSC with a Pounds 6 billion a year budget. This structure has been criticised as overly bureaucratic by Conservative politicians.
Mr Wicks rejected an amendment to include higher education on the face of the bill. He said guidance would be issued to the national council instructing it to encourage the local councils to consult higher education institutions in drawing up their strategic plans. The government does have a reserve power in the bill to intervene if it is felt that LSCs are failing to consult with relevant bodies.