HIGHER education has a crucial role to play in lifelong learning but more must be done to widen participation and improve business links, minister Kim Howells has said.
Dr Howells said that the sector's biggest weakness was the exclusion of people from poorer backgrounds. In a speech prepared for the Association of Sandwich Education and Training, Dr Howells said that participation among young people from professional and managerial backgrounds was three times higher than among semi-skilled and unskilled, 54 per cent against 17 per cent.
"We must create a situation where all those who can benefit from higher education get the opportunity to do so," he said.
Dr Howells, who failed to deliver his speech to Monday's conference in York because of travel problems, said that higher education had to listen to employers in order to be able to provide graduates with the skills required by business. He said that the sector had a key role in enhancing the United Kingdom's competitiveness, largely by helping to develop the skills base.
Central to the government's plans for developing a highly-skilled graduate workforce is the new national Skills Task Force. Higher education will be represented on the task force, which is consulting widely this month, in an attempt to identify skills shortages and advise on how these will be bridged. Consultation will take place in a series of "regional summits".
The minister also outlined a number of government-funded projects aimed at improving links between higher education and business. They included Pounds 3 million for the Higher Education Regional Development Fund, the Pounds 1.6 million investment in improving graduates' key skills through the Higher Education and Employment Development Projects, and another Pounds 1.5 million to support eight projects aimed at enhancing the quality and quantity of student work experience.
A National Centre for Student Work Experience, described by Dr Howells as a "one-stop-shop" of expertise for work experience employers, was set up on March 5 as part of attempts to improve the sector's links with employees.