On 18 July the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) published its response to the Leitch Review. In World Class Skills (Cm 7181), it undertakes to deliver an extensive programme of innovations designed to bring the UK into the ‘premier league’ of skilled workforces by 2020.
‘Skills’, not ‘education’, is thus, once again, the word of the moment. Doubtless conspiracy theorists will have seen it coming: the fact that education is now the responsibility of two government departments, neither of which carries ‘education’ in its title was surely an omen of something.
Of course, in a national context where around five million adults still lack functional literacy, a bit of skills focus may not be a bad thing at all. And I for one am quite happy to agree that reading, writing and ‘rithmatic need to be a continuing priority. But what about my patch, higher education? In the course of this and the next couple of blogs I’ll try to offer a basic summary and some reflections on what World Class Skills might have in store for HE. Today I’ll start with the basics.
World Class Skills I suggest should be read and taken seriously by anyone interested in or concerned by UK education policy. It represents the latest confluence of various streams of regional, national and international HE policy which together stress the importance of moving to a model which provides (in theory) a more integrated, more flexible, and demand- (for which read employer-) led approach to secondary, tertiary and higher education. The amount of activity in this area has already been significant. In case you’ve been sojourning on Mars or otherwise taking a break from all this policy stuff, some key examples are:
- the development of 14-19 diplomas, intended to bridge the gap between existing academic and vocational qualifications;
- the new national Qualifications and Credit Framework which intends, building on demand- and market-led principles, to further rationalise and standardise delivery of post-secondary and adult education (separate frameworks for Wales and Scotland are in place);
- the work of the Burgess Group on a common credit framework for HE, one aim of which is to facilitate progression from FE to HE;
- the proposal, now encapsulated in the Further Education Bill, that appropriate colleges will be given the power to award their own foundation degrees;
- recognition, following Leitch, that employer engagement is a strategic priority for HEFCE in 2006-11 (there is already a significant range of funding council activity in this area in respect of the ‘Higher Level Skills’ pathfinder projects, e-skills and workforce development projects, as well as the creation of an Action Group on employer engagement);
- agreement at the London Ministerial Summit in May 2007 that employability and employer engagement were among the ‘Bologna’ priorities for the European Higher Education Area in the lead-up to the next summit in 2009.
As widely anticipated the DIUS proposals adopt pretty much all of the key recommendations in Lord Leitch’s report. Among the important aspirations and objectives for higher education identified are:
- a target of 36% of adults educated to level four (foundation degree) and above by 2014
- HEFCE to develop a new funding model that is “co-financed with employers, achieves sustained growth in employer-based student places and introduces the principle of employer demand-led funding.”
- Five thousand additional university places announced for 2008-09 to be jointly-funded by HEFCE and industry, with a strong focus on collaborative, work-based programmes. Further growth of at least 5,000 additional entrants in each year up to 2010-11 is expected.
- A new Commission for Employment and Skills to be created and Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) to be re-licensed and given an enhanced role in co-ordinating demand-led vocational education. SSCs and higher education institutions to be encouraged to extend their collaborative work.
- A key role is also identified for DIUS itself, working with the Higher Education Regulation Review Group and the Gateways to Professions Collaborative Forum, in brokering partnerships between the professional bodies, SSCs and higher education institutions.
OK that’s enough for now. I’m going to lie down in a darkened room and try and figure out what this might actually mean in policy and practice terms….