There is still time to mend a flawed government bill

April 21, 2000

It is becoming apparent that the government's decision to exclude higher education from plans to restructure post-16 education through the Learning and Skills bill is a serious shortcoming (page 4). The bill promises something approaching joined-up government for post-16 education. A series of initiatives will draw further education into economic plans determined by regional development agencies.

Leaving higher education out means one of the main drivers is missing. In many cities, universities are the last bastions of civic pride and the main source of initiatives. With no place in the new structure, the sector will be at best semi-

detached from an agenda that points implicitly to revived regional economies under devolved regional assemblies.

Universities are already active in regional skills training, as well as in developing research commercially to the benefit of local and regional economies. To build on this, structures and mechanisms are needed to encourage engagement. This might, for example, as Vincent Watts, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, suggests, mean channelling some university funding through the RDAs.

Ministers have tried to palm off the sector with promises of a higher education advisory group for the skills council and that the funding council chief will be involved. But that is not enough. The difficulty was, and is, the centralised post-16 structure proposed in the bill: a national council with a Pounds 6 billion annual budget and 47 sub-regional councils centrally appointed. Minister Malcolm Wicks may deny centralist tendencies but there is little local or democratic involvement to counterbalance ministerial power in the bill. Mr Wicks has said that universities were excluded because of their autonomous nature. They "cannot have it both ways," he said - even as he seeks to do so himself.

This bill was introduced in the Lords, where university autonomy is stoutly defended. It looks as if the government, knowing universities would object to the degree of central control, has taken the easier - but wrong - path of leaving them out. Better would be to temper centralisation with more democracy and write in enabling provisions to encourage universities to become involved. With this most important bill still in committee, perhaps it is not too late to reconsider.

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