Leitch: tie learning to work

December 8, 2006

Skills review calls for more adults with degrees tailored to employment, write Claire Sanders and Chloe Stothart

More than four out of ten adults should have a degree-level qualification by 2020, the long-awaited review of skills led by Lord Leitch recommended this week. This heralds a big shift in funding from traditional three-year degrees to flexible work-based courses with significant input from employers.

The move to include the whole of the working-age population in a new drive to raise higher level skills will have enormous implications for universities.

In 2005, 29 per cent of the workforce were graduates. This should rise to above 40 per cent by 2020, which means there will 5.5 million more graduates, the review's final report says. "Changing the targets away from the sole focus on young people aged 18 to 30 will transform the incentives of higher education providers to work with employers, delivering a step change in liaison between employers and higher education institutions."

The report calls for a new funding mechanism to deliver these courses. A model could be the "train to gain" initiative in further education, which involves the use of government-supported "brokers" between business and colleges to ensure that courses meet employer needs. The review recommends that a proportion of higher education funding be delivered through a similar demand-led mechanism.

Several vice-chancellors and trade union leaders warned against sinking all higher education funds into such a mechanism.

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said the initiative should be supported by extra money. "If the UK is to get close to US levels of investment in higher education, additional funding from sources including the public purse is clearly necessary," she said. Lady Warwick also described the 40 per cent target as "ambitious".

Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We do not want all skills funding to depend on the constantly changing needs of employers."

Deian Hopkins, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of the Universities UK skills group, said: "This top-slicing of the funding council grant will transform incentives." He said the Government had realised that it cannot improve higher level skills by focusing only on 18 to 30-year-olds and had introduced a new workforce target instead.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Lord Leitch stressed that his review represented a huge opportunity for further education colleges, with the employer voice strengthened via the train-to-gain initiative.

He was more equivocal on universities. They must better engage with employers, he said. "We had constant feedback from employers that this engagement needs to improve."

Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, questioned how many employers and individuals would invest in training when the report did not offer them enough tax breaks or financial incentives.

Sector Skills Councils are to gain a big role in approving vocational qualifications, with only those approved by the SCC qualifying for public funding. The report notes that universities are responsible for developing and delivering their own courses. "Therefore, to influence content, employers and their SSCs have to develop direct relationships with universities," it says.

The Leitch review, one of many that will feed into the Comprehensive Spending Review next summer, is an indicator that the Government's education spending priorities will be focused on schools and further education rather than universities in an effort to improve the skills base.

However, the Government's skills agenda came in for criticism from a leading academic this week. Alison Wolf, professor of public-sector management at King's College London, said, "Ministers are clearly worried about UK productivity and think that ploughing money into the attainment of centrally set qualification and participation targets will solve this. All the evidence is that it will not."

'WE MUST NOT CREATE PERVERSE INCENTIVES FOR LACK OF COLLABORATION'

Employers and students will shun foundation degrees if the Government gives further education colleges the power to award them, the president of Universities UK has warned.

Writing in today's Times Higher , Drummond Bone says that their status as less-prestigious "sub-degrees" will be emphasised if they lose their association with universities, which currently validate them.

He warns that universities will stop working with colleges to develop courses if they think the college will become a rival, and that they will have fewer incentives to link the degrees to full honours courses. "My concern is that if foundation degrees lose their association with universities, demand from employers and students may be stifled rather than encouraged."

The plan to give colleges degree-awarding powers is part of the Further Education and Training Bill, which is set for a second reading in the House of Lords on December 13.

Foundation degrees began in 2001-02 with 4,500 students. There are now 48,000 people enrolled.

Michael Sterling, Birmingham University's vice-chancellor, said: "The more we give degree-awarding powers away, the more we have to be clear we can maintain quality and that we are not creating perverse incentives for lack of collaboration."

Chloe Stothart

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