Skills gap still a concern, UUK told

Minister warns that employers believe graduates lack what firms need. Rebecca Attwood reports

September 11, 2008

The UK is "not yet anywhere near" a position where employers believe that the university system is producing graduates with the skills they want, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, warned this week.

In an interview with Times Higher Education ahead of his speech at Universities UK's annual conference, Mr Denham said the results of his department's consultation on higher-level skills had made it clear that there was still seen to be a gap between what employers say they want from higher education and what higher education is actually offering.

In the coming months, he said, his department would work to bring employers and universities together to identify why this was a topic of such "persistent dissatisfaction, persistent rumbling".

"Our job ... is to get people in the same room to talk these issues through because I am absolutely convinced that ... the tensions and the conflicts that people feel are there will actually very often melt away."

Mr Denham said it was mistake to think that the intrinsic value of higher education was not what many employers were looking for. "I think the idea that employers want something instrumentalist and higher education is delivering something of intrinsic value that is different is one of the problems," he said, adding that many employers wanted people who were able to solve problems, communicate, apply critical analysis to evidence and think for themselves.

As part of his wider drive to consider the future of higher education in the next 15 to 20 years, he said he would be "going to the business community, students, people interested in the regional impact of universities and so on" to develop a picture of "the challenges of the future as they are seen from within the university sector with the view from outside the sector".

Speaking of his first year in the role of Universities Secretary, he said he believed the biggest shift in emphasis he had helped to bring about was the need for widening-participation efforts to begin at a younger age, and a greater recognition of the importance of links between schools and universities.

Asked whether it was university admissions policies or improving attainment in schools that was more important when it came to widening access, he said: "If you look at the statistics, it is absolutely clear that the big prizes are to be gained by enabling more of the young people who say they want to go to university ... to actually get the achievements at school level that enable that to be a possibility."

But he added that there was also "undoubtedly" a group of people who on paper looked as though they would be well equipped to go to some of the most selective and competitive universities but did not apply there or were not successful, which meant admissions policies could not be taken out of the picture entirely.

Mr Denham emphasised that universities set their own admissions policies. "What we've said on admissions policies is very clear: that they are for universities to determine; that their policies should be published (they usually are, actually, but they usually are quite inaccessible); and the universities should be able to show that their stated public policy is what they actually implement in practice, and that the people who are responsible for carrying it out are equipped to do so."

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