Leitch: skills agenda is not 'utilitarian'

Demand-led provision is flexible, not 'Benthamite', review leader tells MPs. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 1, 2008

The former businessman behind the Government's skills policy has denied that his agenda will bring about a "utilitarian" approach to higher education.

Lord Leitch's influential review of skills concluded that in order for the UK to remain competitive, four in ten adults should have a degree-level qualification by 2020. Achieving that would require a huge expansion of higher education.

He told a committee of MPs this week that "next to national defence", skills were "probably the most important task and priority for this nation".

But when MPs suggested that his call for universities to respond to the demands of employers would mean a "Benthamite", utilitarian approach to higher education in future, Lord Leitch said: "No, that's not fair, it is not utilitarian. It is about a flexible approach to higher education that is demand-led."

He told the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee that universities already offered many "demand-led" courses, such as MBAs and degrees in architecture, engineering, law and medicine.

It was important that there was more investment in higher education, but he argued that employers and employees should contribute towards the cost of expansion.

He said his review team concluded: "It didn't seem right that the state should invest dramatically more ... We think there is a very significant opportunity for employers to co-invest" in improving the qualifications of the workforce.

He told the committee: "I think that the real prize is richer and deeper than economic prosperity - it is about pride, fairness, quality of life and opportunity for everyone in this country, and I think it is the best investment this nation could make."

Lord Leitch, who worked in financial management before retiring, said he "didn't know enough details" to comment on the Government's decision to cut £100 million in funding from those seeking qualifications at the same or a lower level than those they already hold. He said the Government had to "prioritise", but that there was also a need to "watch out for unintended consequences". He would not be drawn on whether the cuts could have that result.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

ONLY A HANDFUL OF COLLEGES WILL SEEK DEGREE POWERS

Only a handful of colleges will apply for the power to award their own degrees in the short term, it was predicted this week as the Further Education Bill came into force.

From 1 May, further education colleges can apply to award two-year foundation degrees, without a university as the awarding body.

University leaders have warned that the change could undermine the status of the degrees and damage links between higher and further education, but colleges have argued that it will allow them to respond to the market more rapidly.

John Widdowson, chair of the Mixed Economy Group of colleges that offer both further and higher education courses, said that his institution, New College Durham, hopes to be among the first to obtain the powers. But he predicted that no more than four or five colleges from his group would apply this year.

"That there will be a fairly modest number of colleges at first shows how seriously colleges are taking it," he said.

The Quality Assurance Agency has recommended that colleges seek the powers only after having been through the QAA's college audit system, known as Integrated Quality and Enhancement Review (IQER). But only 15 colleges have so far been through the IQER pilot stage.

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