Set workers study targets

September 30, 2005

UK business and academe must band together to maintain levels of key skills, says Helen Connor

If the UK is to be internationally competitive, we have to increase the skills of our existing workforce - not just those of young people.

The Council for Industry and Higher Education argues, in a report published this week, that the Government should look beyond its current participation target of getting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education. The council adds that academe should be fully involved in a new, broader workforce target.

It is no secret that UK businesses face a growing challenge from developing markets, such as China and India. Secondary education alone is not enough to meet the changing demands of the workplace: we need to develop our skills, knowledge and capabilities throughout our lives. Couple this with a rising proportion of older people in the UK workforce and the challenge is clear.

Business expansion and investment is already being limited by a skills shortage. Businesses are failing to prepare their workers for the future, leading to warnings of a "skills time bomb".

The latest report on education from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the UK's advantages from earlier strong growth in higher education (which has levelled off) and from having comparatively high graduate completion rates is slipping. We no longer top the OECD graduation rankings, and more countries are overtaking us in terms of entry numbers to higher education.

In OECD member states more people are expected to enter a university-level or equivalent programme in their lifetime. In some countries over 60 per cent of the population achieve this, but the UK has been stuck at 48 per cent for the past few years, well below the OECD average of 53 per cent.

The CIHE believes the Government should set a broader-based level 4 target, which includes foundation degrees, for the workforce as a whole. Participation targets (such as the 50 per cent target in England) should be incorporated rather than abandoned.

We also need a credit-based approach to learning, one that is more inclusive of higher education than the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's proposed framework. We need a "climbing frame" approach, to encourage employers and employees to explore new options, such as progression from apprenticeships to foundation degrees and further.

We also need a broader concept of what constitutes workforce development. It should be broadened to include the work universities and colleges already do under the heading of graduate employability. Universities need to work more closely with the public and private sectors. Workforce development offers additional revenue and widening access initiatives for universities and colleges, and provides an opportunity to expand the learning market.

Our universities are world class in developing the knowledge we need to underpin a highly developed knowledge-based economy. Upgrading the skills of the workforce at higher levels through closer interaction between business and our centres of learning should be at the heart of the Government's economic and competitiveness strategy.

Helen Connor is associate director, Council for Industry and Higher Education. Workforce Development and Higher Education will be available at www.cihe-uk.com/publications, £5.00

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