Individual and national success demands one path to higher skills

To meet future challenges, we need a single knowledge infrastructure incorporating higher and further education, says Lord Mandelson

October 15, 2009

There was a time when our university and vocational-training systems were seen as having distinctly different functions, reinforced as much by social assumptions as by economic reality. Universities provided elite education and training for professional life. Apprenticeships were for craftspeople who would spend their lives in a particular trade.

The days of such a distinction are long gone - or should be. A hard and fast separation between higher and vocational training has no place in a Britain that is serious about equipping all its people for life in a globalised economy. Although universities and the further education system do not do the same job, they have the same essential role: building human capacity. Whether it is a degree in Classics or biosciences, or a qualification in IT skills or business administration, the goal is a more confident and qualified individual.

The challenge is to ensure that all routes to higher skills are part of an integrated system in which the parts reinforce the whole. In the coming weeks, we will publish a strategy for the future of our universities and the UK skills system. We will argue that we are right to insist on continuing to widen access to universities and we are right to invest in making our university system and the research it does the best in the world. But we also need to see the alternative routes to higher skills provided by apprenticeships and further education as no less valuable. For the first time, we will explicitly view them as part of a single agenda.

Any idea that apprenticeships or vocational training provide "second-rank" skills does not stand up to the reality of work today. Modern craftspeople - the technicians, designers and engineers who underpin our advanced manufacturing sector - do some of the highest value-added jobs in the UK and will play a critical role in our economic future. Teaching the practical skills in process management, IT and numeracy that are needed at all levels of employment was pioneered by the further education sector. The huge expansion in UK apprenticeships since 1997 has been one of the great achievements of this Government.

Our case will rest on the argument that further and higher education in Britain face the same three wider realities. The first is the need to play a central role in contributing to economic recovery and future prosperity. So there will be more emphasis on identifying the strategic skills that the economy will need in the future and reinforcing universities and colleges to provide them. This will include the skills needed to handle sophisticated technologies and processes, especially in key areas such as low-carbon living. But it will also cover new ways of encouraging businesses to work with higher and further education to improve productivity, develop solutions or technologies and commercialise new ideas.

The second is the need to build these new roles in a period of fiscal constraint. If we want to continue to expand and improve tertiary education, we will need to ensure that public investment is balanced by new sources of income from collaboration with business and the export of our best knowledge brands. Because businesses will play a key role in defining the priorities of the knowledge system and will benefit from the skilled people it produces, they will be expected to share some of the costs.

Finally, both further and higher education need to be flexible, to respond to the demands of mature study and lifelong learning. We are an ageing population, with the majority of our vital workforce of 2020 already in the labour market. Universities increasingly recognise the need to cater for adult students and approaches to study beyond the full-time, three-year degree model. Further education will be our key resource for helping individuals and their employers to develop their skill profiles regardless of age or experience. But we need even more innovation - more apprenticeships at higher skill levels, more workplace training, more ways to move from further education to the specialist training of a higher degree.

The rationale for this final commitment is social as much as economic. Because education (and higher skills in particular) is the most important key to social mobility, widening access to all forms of training is a matter of equity and social justice as well as one of competitiveness. As part of our response to Alan Milburn's recent cross-party report on social mobility, our skills and higher education strategies will include new ways of expanding the contribution of higher and further education to social mobility.

The knowledge economy may have become a cliche, but it expresses a reality about Britain's future. As a country with comparative advantages in sophisticated services, science and technology, advanced manufacturing and creative industries, skilled people are our basic asset. Skilled people command better wages, get more out of work and rise higher. They are more productive and create better businesses and organisations. Our challenge now is to bring higher and further education into a single integrated knowledge infrastructure committed to creating more of them than ever before.

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