Take a 'business-facing' approach, ministers say

July 27, 2007

The Government's response to the Leitch review is to make employment and training a priority. Rebecca Attwood reports on institutions' early progress

A new generation of "business-facing" universities is set to emerge under ambitious plans to bring millions more adults into higher education, it was predicted this week.

In its long-awaited response to the Leitch review of skills, the Government confirmed that it would adopt Lord Leitch's "exceptionally demanding goals" for England to become a world leader in skills.

It has set a target for 36 per cent of all adults to hold a higher education qualification by 2014, and an ambition for this to exceed 40 per cent by 2020, compared with 29 per cent in 2005.

This would mean that 11.2 million working-age adults would be educated to at least level 4 - equivalent to a certificate in higher education, foundation degree or honours degree - within the next seven years, up from 8.5 million in 2005. If the target is met, 13.1 million adults will have higher education qualifications by 2020.

In the report, World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England , the Government says it wants employers to become "empowered", with "the opportunity to exert real leverage and decision-making over both the content and delivery of skills and employment programmes".

Employers should be more demanding and universities will be expected to be "increasingly responsive to what learners and employers actually want".

The Government expects employers and learners to contribute more to the costs of learning at higher levels. The report cites the 5,000 additional university places co-funded by employers that the Higher Education Funding Council for England will support from 2008, and further growth of at least 5,000 additional entrants year-on-year up to 2010-11.

Train to Gain, which gives advice on training to businesses in England, will become a broader service that responds to employers' skills needs at all levels.

The remit of a new UK Commission for Employment and Skills, chaired by Sir Michael Rake, will also include high-level skills and will help shape strategy and "challenge [the] performance" of universities and colleges.

Universities will be encouraged to interact more strongly with sector skills councils to determine what courses employers need.

The report says that "all higher education institutions will need to grow their capacity to engage on a large scale with employers, in ways adapted to their different profiles and missions... 'Business facing' should be a description with which any higher education institution feels comfortable."

Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire University, said he believed more universities would soon be making this their core goal.

He said: "Hertfordshire is the first to declare itself as business-facing. I think we will see several others in the next year or so saying 'we are business-facing in everything we do'. Never before, in my experience, has the political and economic need been so aligned with the attributes of the business-facing university.

"Everything we do is looking at its application in employment, its application in business. It is not selective, it is holistic, and that's the difference between a university that is saying 'we are a business-facing university' and a university that is engaged with business."

Some post-92 universities will be ideally placed to embrace this mission, but he believes it will also suit some pre-92s.

Professor Wilson described the higher education participation goal as "ambitious and achievable".

"I think if we can develop our higher education system then in my view we can exceed those targets," he said.

Universities in general welcomed the Government's commitment to joining the world's "premier league" for skills, but the first major report from the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was also criticised for a lack of detail on how the higher education targets would be achieved and how funding from employers will be secured.



A convenient partnership

Teesside University will turn shops into lecture theatres with the launch of a course for Sainsbury's convenience-store managers.

The university's certificate in advanced professional development was devised by Teesside's Centre for Lifelong Learning and Sainsbury's at Bells, a division of the retail giant that runs former Bells corner shops in the North East.

The programme emerged from a £400,000 three-year grant from the Learning and Skills Council, designed to encourage universities' collaboration with companies in course development. Teesside approached Sainsbury's at Bells and offered to devise a course to meet its needs. This is delivered on Sainsbury's sites and taught by its trainers; Teesside provides quality assessment and accreditation. "Students" are assessed through presentations and reports, and teaching hours match the company's requirements.

Ruth Helyer, the university's adult accessible programmes manager, praised Bell's enthusiasm. She thinks other companies might be less keen because all they have been offered so far are "foundation degrees on the university's terms, on campus at 10am and exams at the end".

Courses that deliver employers' needs on employers' terms might come as a shock to some people who have spent their whole career in academia, she said. "Not all universities will get involved in it, and it won't necessarily be the main part of their business."

But Teesside's shift of focus will not be at the expense of more traditional academic work. "There will always be people who want to do higher research," Ms Helyer added.


Herts means business Hertfordshire University wants to been seen as a new model of university, dedicated to working with business. Three undergraduate degree courses developed with electronics giant Sony are testimony to this approach.

The degrees - in media technology and digital broadcast; audio, video and digital broadcast engineering; and games and graphics hardware technology - grew from a relationship between Sony and Reza Sotudeh, head of the School of Electrical Engineering. Sony is one of several firms on the school's panel of businesses, which advises on new degrees. Sony, Microsoft and local firm Soundcraft have sponsored the school's Games Laboratory.

Sony advised on the structure and content of the games and graphics course and its staff teach seminars for the course.

The industrial focus has made students more employable, says Professor Sotudeh: "There were students who took their last exam on May 11 and started work on May 14."

Designing the course involved ensuring that the core transferable engineering skills were not pushed out by the company-specific content. The university and Sony were broadly united on curriculum design, but had delicate negotiations over how much should be taught through Sony's products and design ethos.

Professor Sotudeh said that focusing on a few companies will not hinder students' attempts to get jobs elsewhere since the companies' products are widely used.

The Government's plans to deliver 'world-class skills' in England via higher education

Employers should 'influence the development of higher education programmes to meet their needs' and 'exert real leverage' over content and delivery of programmes.

The Government will 'support' examples of stronger collaboration between sector skills councils, colleges and universities while recognising that universities are 'autonomous' awarding bodies.

Universities' work with employers should have 'equal status' to academic research. 'Business-facing should be a description with which any higher education institution feels comfortable,' the Government said.

Greater engagement between employers, universities and colleges implies a 'culture change within higher education as well as further education'.

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