Government plans for regional development agencies could threaten universities' and colleges' autonomy, critics have said.
Last week's publication of the white paper Building Partnerships for Prosperity paved the way for the establishment of nine RDAs by April 1999. The RDAs "will be powerful and influential bodies", said deputy prime minister John Prescott. They will be charged with coordinating economic and social regeneration, with a combined budget of Pounds 750 million.
The boards of the "business-led" RDAs will have 12 members appointed by ministers. It is planned that boards will have at least one representative from education.
Education and training were high on the white paper's agenda, but details were sketchy. "The government wants RDAs to make a powerful contribution to the challenges of education, training and employability," the white paper said. "We also want RDAs to engage further and higher education fully in the regional agenda and improve cooperation between these sectors. The RDAs will work with the Further Education Funding Council's regional committee to ensure that provision takes full account of emerging economic trends. They will work with universities to enhance the exploitation of the university knowledge base."
Bob Bennett, professor of geography at Cambridge University and an expert on regional development, said the paper was "thin on detail and could be read as a bit heavy-handed against university autonomy". The language appears tough, he said.
The paper said: "We expect the skills agenda in the RDAs' regional economic strategies to contain particular messages for the key partners. The RDAs will give a regional steer, which will assist local authorities, colleges, universities and Training and Enterprise Councils to prepare their annual or business plansI The RDAs will contribute to policies and programmes on further and higher education."
Professor Bennett said universities need not worry about autonomy immediately. "The RDAs will be too busy to try to do anything with universities at first," he said. "But in ten years, who knows?" Simon James, who wrote the Further Education Development Agency report FE and Regional Development, was concerned about the RDAs' prescriptive role. "The regional skills agenda could be cooked up by the RDA and then dictated to organisations such as local colleges and universities," he said. "Further and higher education need to contribute to the agenda and fully subscribe to it."
Mr James was disappointed that there was no formal place for further education college heads on every RDA board. But he hoped that "many colleges will fill the education places on the boards".
Sir Norman Fowler, shadow environment secretary, told parliament that there were "serious doubts and concerns" about the RDAs, especially as they will not be elected. "They are creatures of Whitehall and will be unaccountable to the public," he said.
Some lobbyists believe the RDAs will lack the teeth to coordinate education effectively. The North of England Assembly, a local government lobby, was pushing for a block grant for the RDAs so it could have more control of public money for education. But the Pounds 700 million training budget has been retained by the TECs.
The white paper will be followed by a bill next week.