Mandelson's main motifs to be economy and mobility

July 23, 2009

Lord Mandelson is expected to focus on social mobility and the economy in his first major speech on higher education.

The First Secretary, who took responsibility for the sector in last month's reshuffle, is set to make the speech at Birkbeck, University of London on July. A senior source predicted that he would draw on the Building Britain's Future - New Industry, New Jobs policy document, launched in April, and the draft higher education framework.

The framework, which was drawn up by John Denham, the former Universities Secretary, is being redrafted by Lord Mandelson's team. It is understood to say that the UK could do more to attract global research and development funds.

It recommends that the sector skills councils act as "brokers" between industry and universities, and suggests that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills should highlight areas where degrees are failing to meet employers' needs.

The framework is also understood to endorse the Higher Education Funding Council for England's recommendation that rather than setting up league tables to show how performance differs between universities, Hefce should develop web-based "spidergrams" based on performance indicators, such as the production of employable graduates.

The source said that the framework, which is not expected to be published until after the summer recess, "isn't a prescriptive document", but added that "there is a clear indication that the sector is expected to respond positively to it".

One vice-chancellor, who asked not to be named, predicted that there would be a "strong focus on skills activism" in Lord Mandelson's speech. But he added: "Can we trust sector skills councils to identify the needs of industry? They are stuffed with people from large companies - will they be able to predict what's needed in the new economy?"

On social mobility, Lord Mandelson's speech is likely to focus on universities' use of contextual data in the admissions process and the findings of the Unleashing Aspirations report, published this week.

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