'Skills paper sidelines universities'

November 14, 2003

The government's skills strategy white paper marginalises higher education and could stunt development, Universities UK said this week in its response to the paper.

In a three-page letter to the Department for Education and Skills, UUK president and vice-chancellor of Essex University Ivor Crewe, says: "This is a lost opportunity to fully integrate skills development and build a truly knowledge-based economy."

The white paper, published last July, aims to eliminate the UK's "deep-rooted and pervasive" skills gap by offering free learning to adults aiming for a level-2 qualification (five good GCSEs) and integrating different strands of government, training and business.

But Professor Crewe says that although the strategy mentions foundation degrees, it ignores much of the vocational and work-related higher education provision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

"Higher education institutions provide work experience through placements as part of 'sandwich' courses and work-based learning programmes, integrating workplace learning with university study, continuing professional development and shorter training courses," he says.

He says that implementation of the white paper should be sufficiently flexible to allow university involvement and local responses. "They (universities) also validate higher education programmes offered by further education colleges and other providers, and engage in knowledge transfer."

Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and former president of UUK, said: "Universities are seriously concerned at the relative lack of attention in the skills strategy to the upper skills levels."

He said that in London his university served a population with a high skills base and that what was needed was skills enhancement rather than basic skills provision.

Professor Floud said: "The view is that the life span of graduate knowledge for an IT graduate is 18 months. Such graduates need continued re-skilling."

He said that one of the "oddities" of the skills strategy was the focus on the needs of employees and students and the exclusion of providers, including further education colleges.

"For the strategy to work we need partnerships," he said. For example, London Metropolitan is known for its silversmithing and jewellery courses, as well as its musical instrument-making courses. In these areas, we have more knowledge than anyone else in the country. Why ignore us?" he asked.

But UUK has welcomed the reform of fees and funding arrangements for the provision of education and training up to and including level 3 (equivalent to two A levels) in the white paper as well as the government's recognition of its own responsibilities as an employer.

"However, this should include other government departments in addition to those highlighted, such as the departments of health; culture, media and sport; and environment, food and rural affairs, and the office of deputy prime minister," the response says.

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