Our reforms will make for a prosperous sector

December 22, 2006

RAE changes, foundation degrees and widening access will be critical to UK economic success, says Bill Rammell

I have the best job in Government outside the Cabinet. That was forcefully brought home to me this month when announcements were made about three separate reforms in higher and further education. All those announcements are critical to the future economic and social prosperity of our country. For the past fortnight, debate has been in full flow on the review of skills, led by Lord Leitch, about giving foundation degree-awarding powers to colleges of further education and, of course, about the system of metrics that will replace the research assessment exercise.

These issues will affect the provision of further and higher education in the UK and underline the central importance of these sectors to this country's future success.

Lord Leitch set out clearly the scale of the challenge we face to develop the world-class skills necessary to compete internationally in the global economy by 2020. We have made progress in the past decade, but to succeed further our higher level skills base has to improve significantly. We must move to ensuring that more than 40 per cent of the working-age population has at least level-four qualifications by 2020.

The big expansion in further and higher education will be in work-based learning, and universities will play a crucial role in achieving this. Our target towards getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education has been and will continue to be important in increasing and widening access. But it only focuses on one part of the picture: the younger population. We also have to improve the skills of the existing workforce, where only 5 per cent of over-25s in work are involved in higher education.

This is both about upskilling to achieve greater economic success and about widening access.

To succeed, the sector has to be as flexible, innovative and responsive to business as possible. I therefore welcome the Leitch recommendation that a proportion of higher education funding be delivered through a demand-led mechanism, similar to Train to Gain, the new national skills programme that is helping further education colleges meet the needs of employers.

We have already started with three regional higher education work-based pathfinders. There are universities that have developed strong and innovative partnerships with employers, and they need to lead the way in sharing good practice across the sector.

Giving foundation degree-awarding powers to further education colleges is also part of the solution - I should add that universities have nothing to fear from this because the overall market for foundation degrees will double in the next four years as we move from provision of 50,000 to 100,000 places.

There will be robust quality thresholds with the Quality Assurance Agency continuing its key role, and, of course, not all colleges will be in a position or indeed want to award their own foundation degrees. I certainly expect continuing collaboration between universities and colleges. I want to work with both types of institution to get this reform right. But this change is important as it will help deliver more flexible and bespoke degrees for business.

Our decisions on the future of research assessment were also announced this month. These show a commitment to reform, but also demonstrate that we have listened during this year's consultation to make the correct decisions. And reaction from universities has been extremely positive.

We are ensuring that staff will remain key to the assessment of university research across the subject range. But we are reducing the bureaucratic burden that many academics endured in the past. By combining data on research income with information on postgraduate students and information on research volume and quality, we will ease the amount of time that university staff have had to dedicate to the RAE. And that should command widespread support.

Also, by making clear that the new system will begin to inform university research funding from 2010-11, we have ensured that we do not compromise the viability of the 2008 RAE. And the £60 million applied research funding stream that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, announced in his Pre-Budget Report, should help to rightly focus the system on the needs of business.

This month has been important for higher education in this country and demonstrated just how important the sector is to the UK's future economic and social success.

Bill Rammell is Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education.

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