Message from the ministry

November 6, 1998

The government wants to create a new enterprise culture. Three ministers went on message this week to tell universities and colleges to get vocational

David Blunkett

The education secretary told the CBI that the government planned to build more employment skills and work experience into the higher education curriculum, writes Tony Tysome.

He said the Quality Assurance Agency's new system for policing standards would convey the message that "failing" universities need to be identified. "That will send signals, just as our action in tackling failing schools sends signals," he said.

John Robinson, chairman of the Confederation of British Industry's technology and innovation committee, told the Birmingham conference that business leaders should not be afraid to voice their concerns about poor quality higher education and the sector's continuing failure to turn out graduates ready for the world of work.

He said: "Universities, like business itself, don't like being told what to do and how they're failing. But some things need to be said. Businesses are not remedial educators. We do not expect young people to come out of education unaware of the world of business and lacking key skills such as communication and team-working."

Mr Robinson said it was not carping for the business world to say that quality was being "unduly watered down by academics under the mask of autonomy". He said the removal of the binary divide between former polytechnics and universities, described by one delegate as "one of our great diseases", was a mistake which had led to research funding being spread too thinly and new universities pursuing an inappropriate role.

Mr Blunkett replied that it was still necessary to "take risks" in research funding to pave the way for future success. But he warned new universities against feeling they had to "ape and emulate other universities". He said:

"We are planning to develop a new fund with the Higher Education Funding Council and the Department of Trade and Industry to support work skills and improve the application of academic knowledge to the needs of employers."

He announced a Pounds 250 million initiative to help teenage drop-outs and under-achievers gain qualifications. From next year the money will be used to target the 75,000 young people out of education, training or work, and another 85,000 in unskilled jobs without training and lacking qualifications. Mr Blunkett said the government would introduce more places in further education colleges to meet demand.

Baroness Blackstone

Higher and further education minister Tessa Blackstone at a conference on non-degree alternatives Baroness Blackstone said this week that 15,000 of the extra 35,000 higher education places available from next year would be at sub-degree level, write Alan Thomson and Alison Goddard.

She said that demand for degrees was expected to remain relatively flat and that efforts should be made to increase the numbers of people studying sub-degree qualifications like Higher National Diplomas and Certificates as well as higher level national vocational qualifications. HNDs and HNCs are cheaper for both the state and individuals since they take a year less to complete than a standard bachelors degree.

"I think it could be argued that for the time being ... the numbers going through to first degree are not going to grow massively and so we should focus on two-year alternatives," she told delegates at a London Conference on non-degree alternatives in higher education sponsored by examinations body Edexcel and the Department for Education and Employment.

She said that much of the sub-degree expansion would take place in further education colleges. Existing provision in higher education institutions should be maintained and in some cases expanded, she said. The Higher Education Funding Council for England issued a circular this week inviting all further education colleges as well as universities to bid for the additional 35,000 student places for 1999/2000 this week, 20,000 of which will be for part-time students.

"We recognise the particular contribution that further education sector colleges can make, for example, by offering subject specialisms not well covered by higher education institutions and by providing what many students perceive as a more supportive learning environment," said a spokesperson.

Overall, the government wants an extra 70,000 to 80,000 higher education places by 2002. Exactly what proportion of these places will be sub-degree courses in colleges is unclear. On top of this an extra 420,000 to 430,000 further education college places are planned over the next three years.

Garry Hawkes, chairman of the National Council representing Britain's sixty National Training Organisations and chairman of catering company Gardiner Merchant, told delegates: "The balance is clearly wrong. There is nothing wrong with people pursuing degrees but to me a degree is part of the middle class Grand Tour. This country responds to the posh and clever." He bemoaned the demise of the polytechnics.

Preliminary findings from research by Public Attitude Surveys presented at the conference show that 47 per cent of employers paid graduates and holders of sub-degree qualifications the same. Far fewer, 38 per cent, paid graduates more and of these 64 per cent said they would expect those with vocational sub-degree qualifications to catch up. And 74 per cent of employers surveyed said that graduates and sub-degree qualification holders enjoyed the same career opportunities. A full PAS report is due to be published later this year.

Lifelong learning minister George Mudie at a Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals conference on widening access George Murdie

The Regional Development Agencies, which will be set up from next April, may "require" universities to re-think the types of courses they offer in order to meet regional training objectives, Mr Mudie told the CVCP this week.

It may also mean universities working closer together with schools and further education colleges towards regional targets.

Institutions which fail to do so will miss out on new educational and funding opportunities arising out of the regional focus and the Government's drive to widen participation in post-16 education and training.

Mr Mudie told delegates that RDA chairmen had been appointed and were already hard at work.

"The Further Education Funding Council is well aware that its regional set up will be severely tested by the new bodies, and they will have to be able to respond to the new regional agenda in a positive fashion. The same will apply to higher education," he said.

He later told The THES: "The RDAs will set a regional agenda and if higher education has not woken up to that then it should beware. The agenda set by the regions will change universities and may require them to change."

Mr Mudie told the conference that as part of the new regional focus he wanted to see universities forging partnerships with secondary schools to encourage more pupils from poorer families to go on to further and higher education.

Universities could provide teaching support, facilities, or information to encourage pupils to start thinking about higher education from an early age.

He said that with the same aim in mind he was already working with schools minister Charles Clarke on plans to bring schools and FE closer together.

"As a Government we are less concerned with who holds or spends the money, and more that it reaches the agreed objective," he said.

Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said universities already had partnerships with schools and other local and regional institutions, but they could do more. But she warned that the Government should not attempt to control the activities of universities through the RDAs. "That would be counterproductive and would not meet the Government's aims," she said.

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