Partners with a global vision

May 11, 2007

The Government aims to unite universities and employers in the bid to build a workforce that is able to compete with the best in the world, explains Bill Rammell

Work-based learning is vital to this Government's skills agenda. Our Higher Education White Paper emphasised the importance of increasing and improving the provision of degree-level work-based learning. It placed engagement between employers and universities at the heart of our work to build a highly skilled workforce able to compete with the best in the world. It heralded foundation degrees as a highly valued higher education qualification.

Foundation degrees are university-level courses designed in partnership with employers so they can be delivered in innovative and flexible ways. Nearly 61,000 people are studying for the qualifications, and many are also holding down jobs. We aim to have 100,000 students by the end of the decade.

There are some fantastic examples of universities and colleges working together to deliver foundation degrees across a wide range of sectors, offering a chance for people to participate in higher education who otherwise may not have thought it was for them.

This Government brought in foundation degrees to meet skills gaps at the associate professional and higher technician level among private and public-sector employers. Their popularity as a higher education qualification has grown enormously in the past five years. The Leitch review of skills recognises the vital role that foundation degrees play in building employer investment in skills and increasing employer-led qualifications gained in the workplace.

But we need more employers on board if we are to fuel the skills revolution. We want new thinking, new approaches - provision designed, developed and delivered with employers - and new models for funding.

Institutions must broker their services to employers and sell provision. If it is "demand-led", it will be by definition attractive and of direct benefit to employers.

There are superb foundation degree courses on offer. We are seeing many excellent examples of strong partnerships with employers that are making a real difference to the learners and communities they serve locally and regionally.

Leitch confirms that we need increasing numbers of employees with degree-level qualifications and recognises that the country's higher education sector is one of our major skills assets. He also states that we need a highly skilled workforce to drive innovation, leadership and management, enabling businesses to compete in the global economy. We are making clear progress in the right direction, but we can do even more to continue making higher education relevant and accessible to as wide a group of learners as possible.

One of the most important ways of raising participation in higher education is through work-based learning. I am heartened that so many universities and businesses are embracing the challenge. We need to make sure that the skills people develop are the ones employers and higher education institutions are looking for. We need to prepare people for jobs we cannot even envisage will exist in years to come. To this end, we also need to encourage more employers to get involved in the development, delivery and funding of the curriculum.

The employer-led Skills for Business Network has an important role to play. Sector skills councils have an absolutely vital role in articulating the employer's voice and in driving up demand for investing in skills. There are good examples of where they are collaborating with higher education to facilitate work-based provision that is responsive to the needs of particular employers, for instance through the three high-level skills partnerships. The Sector Skills Development Agency has developed a strategy for its Skills for Business Network to better engage with higher education.

To provide the country with the skills it needs to compete globally, we are building a culture of lifelong learning. A crucial building block is establishing and sustaining an effective partnership between higher education and business to develop our workforce. Work-based learning is an integral part of this process.

Bill Rammell is Minister for Higher Education.

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