Serious business: framework is unveiled

Government’s long-term plan for sector outlines greater industrial involvement in courses and governance. Melanie Newman reports

November 3, 2009

Government control and the influence of business over higher education are set to increase under a ten- to 15-year plan unveiled in the House of Lords today.

The framework for higher education, Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, sets out Lord Mandelson’s long-term strategy for the sector.

The economic downturn is used to justify more directed spending, research concentration and a focus on student employability.

Funds will be directed to courses that support economic priorities and science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, while cash will be withdrawn from courses that “fail to meet high standards of quality or outcome”, the framework says.

The First Secretary suggested that outcomes under scrutiny would include graduates’ chances of securing “good” jobs and the extent to which courses meet the needs of the economy.

The framework document adds: “There can be no room in the system for vocational programmes that do not constantly evolve to meet changing business needs.”

In future, universities will have to demonstrate that they are teaching all their students skills such as “business awareness”.

They must also provide more consumer-style information on courses, including details of contact hours and the jobs obtained by graduates.

To avoid funds being withdrawn where outcomes are unsatisfactory, universities are advised to cease activities in which they do not excel and focus on their most productive areas. In particular, some institutions should reconsider their focus on research, the framework says.

“Not every institution should feel that maximising its success in the research excellence framework is central to its mission,” it warns.

However, it maintains that excellence must remain the defining basis for allocating research funding.

The strategy document suggests that business people should play a greater part in directing university activities, helping to design courses and sitting on governing boards.

It also reaffirms the Government’s target of 50 per cent participation in higher education, which it says will be achieved by raising the number of part-time students.

And it sets out a more “proactive role” for the Quality Assurance Agency in ensuring that complaints about standards are investigated and acted upon.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, responded by stating that universities must not lose their role in “challenging perceived wisdom”.

“Staff in our universities have built a world-class system on public funding levels that are below average, compared with the US and competitor countries in Europe. Further marketisation of higher education will threaten that status,” she said.

• For full coverage of the framework, see the 5 November issue of Times Higher Education.

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