Top business leaders were lambasted by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, this week for failing to give a clear signal about what employers want from the higher education system.
At the CBI conference in Birmingham, Mrs Shephard said that employers were letting down the reform process by fudging the message from the workplace: "The Government has shown its willingness to undertake reform, the education system has demonstrated its ability to change, and because you the employers are the ultimate users of the education system, we need your views, your help and your input. But sometimes we get mixed messages."
She said that while the official voice of the CBI calls for 40 per cent graduate output - even though, as she said, "it is already one of the highest in Europe" - there are some employers who say "that we already have too many graduates and that most of those are not up to the standard industry requires".
These comments reflected a substantial gulf in business thinking which was apparent during the conference debate. Garry Hawkes, chairman and chief executive of catering company Gardner Merchant, lampooned higher education as "part of the middle-class Grand Tour". He blamed the declining popularity of the practical-based Higher National Diploma in hotel and catering on the growth of new degree programmes in the subject which he attacked for having just five hours of practical instruction. He added that the degree programmes were "a waste of money" because just 50 per cent of hotel and catering graduates eventually enter the industry.
Steve Cuthbert, of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, took the opposing view, slamming the Government for capping higher education numbers, a policy which he said was "bad for young people, bad for industry and commerce, and bad for the country".
Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority who is carrying out a review of the 16 to 19 education and training framework, backed Mrs Shephard in her attack on employers: "Don't just shout from the sidelines. Get involved. Don't just talk to the secretary of state, talk to your local schools."
Dominic Cadbury, chairman of the CBI education and training committee, said that the CBI will be publishing an education and training strategy document next month.