Power of purse used to drive skill bandwagon

September 18, 1998

This week sees the first of The THES's new fortnightly Teaching sections (pages 31-34). Its publication coincides with the Skills Task Force's report Towards a National Skills Agenda and Education and Employment secretary David Blunkett's announcement at the Trades Union Congress of Pounds 38 million to grease the report's wheels.

Money will be channelled through the new regional development agencies and is to be spent on developing skills training in further and higher education. Tuesday's message was reinforced by Richard Caborn, minister for the regions, when he addressed the Committee of Vice-Chancellors in Manchester on Wednesday.

In our summer series of guest leaders, Paul Heywood (August 28) drew attention to the opportunities the government's developing regional policy might hold for higher education. This week's announcements are concrete evidence of what some of those opportunities will be.

Taking advantage of them will require a further shift in higher education towards the needs of the labour market. Cash is going to be more readily available for vocational skills than for more traditional academic courses. And this time the Confederation of British Industry, as well the TUC and the Training and Enterprise Councils, is signed up to a policy that calls for modular courses allowing students to learn while they earn and bolt together modules as the job requires.

Employers are disingenuous about what they want from students. They say they want numerate and literate graduates skilled in information technology and team-working, but then restrict their recruiting to older universities not noted for building such learning into their degrees. This is apt to give the impression that they really prefer socially suave middle-class kids who got good grades at school in maths and English, an impression reinforced, for example, by the difficulty racial minority graduates have finding work in City firms. If this report means a change of heart so much the better.

Anyway, the government is determined to use its power and money to secure a greater skills element in further and higher education courses. The hope is that if skill levels can be raised far enough fast enough, that odious economists' law that a certain level of unemployment (a bit more than we have now) is needed to control inflation, might be bucked. The price of better funding in further education and renewed expansion in higher education will be that institutions join this project enthusiastically. Like it or not, all teachers in higher education are going to need to build into courses the sort of skills elements described in our Teaching section.

Such policies put the Liberal Democrats, with their call for more restricted access to higher education, in an odd position. They are in line with their Labour friends on the importance of the regions but seek control by means of grade restrictions on entry. The result of such restrictions could only be to increase academic bias among students and shut out those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

William Bowen and Derek Bok's book The Shape of the River (page 12), just published in the United States, shows how affirmative action programmes there have been instrumental in helping ethnic minority students secure middle-class status. The success of these programmes, and the collapse in enrolments where they have been outlawed, shows just how socially undesirable it would be to restrict UK institutions' flexibility on admissions.

It seems that the LibDems' hatred of charging the rich for university education has led them into this restrictive solution to the funding crisis. Unfortunately rationing by entry grades is at least as socially divisive as rationing by parental income - indeed, it is often the same thing.

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