When the Higher Education Minister holds meetings with the business community, it is natural for work-based learning to be high on the agenda.
But Bill Rammell's meeting in Sheffield this week was not merely a matter of preaching to the converted; there was a message to academics about the way many of them would be working in future. The last grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England emphasised provision "partly or wholly designed, funded or provided by employers" and stressed that this was to be a long-term commitment. Mr Rammell's tour is designed to convince universities and colleges, as much as the employers, that the Government means business.
There are several reasons for ministers' determination to bring higher education out of the campus, the most obvious of which is financial. Civil servants constantly underestimate the cost of alternatives to the traditional full-time, three-year course. But with a spending review on the horizon, the prospect of sharing the expense of higher education is attractive. Equally importantly, if there is to be any significant movement towards the Government's 50 per cent participation target, it is unlikely to come from full-time degrees. Not only are there signs of healthier demand for work-based courses, but it is often from the very socioeconomic groups that the widening participation agenda has been failing to reach. As Mr Rammell said, work-based learning "pushes all the right buttons".
Making the breakthrough from successful but patchy experiments to a universal route to higher qualifications will not be easy. The academic culture, cited as the main obstacle in this week's meeting, is by no means the only reason that previous attempts have ended in relative failure. Organisational complexity, inconsistent student demand and employers' reluctance to make long-term commitments have been equally formidable. This time, however, there are extra incentives for universities and colleges to pursue work-based partnerships with real vigour. Not only will Hefce offer short-term funding, but the prospect of demographic downturn from the end of the decade will force many institutions to look beyond the teenaged market to keep their numbers up. Yet more overseas students cannot be the answer everywhere.
But are the Government's aspirations realistic? Despite an impressive 18 per cent increase in applicants for foundation degrees, it will do well to meet its target of 50,000 foundation degree students this September. And there is little likelihood of doubling that number by the end of the decade, even if the funding is available. If universities and colleges are to get anywhere near recruitment on that scale, it will be through work-based initiatives. But there will need to be changes in the culture of business as well as academe for such radical transformation to take place.