And more skills

Apologies for leaving you on tenterhooks (not!) for the next exciting instalment, but the realities of various deadlines intervened before I rushed off around dawn last Wednesday to fly to Berlin for the Law & Society Association/Research Committee for Sociology of Law mega-bash aka conference.

I had planned to post a blog or two from Berlin, just to display my international credentials, but after watching a couple of the Americans feverishly blogging away (and hearing of another who had been barking instructions at some poor research assistant in the States who was clearly providing research back-up for his/her master’s blog). I rather went off the idea. Anyway this was my first trip to Berlin, and what makes you think I’d stay in and blog when there’s a whole city famed for its bars – erm, I mean culture – to be explored!

But now I’m back, and its back to thinking about a post-Leitch world of higher education.

What probably interests me most about Leitch and World Class Skills is the way in which it signals another step in the potential shift in focus and in the power-relations that shape the world of higher education. For the present government a general nod, or even a larger commitment, to knowledge transfer will no longer be enough:

“all HE institutions need to grow their capacity to engage on a large scale with employers, in ways adapted to their different profiles and missions. Those activities should share equal status with research and academic activities. ‘Business facing’ should be a description with which any higher education institution feels comfortable”
– World Class Skills, para 3.56

Whether this shift will in fact deliver the skills outcomes the economy needs may prove to be a moot point. World Class Skills potentially puts a lot of faith in the rationality of markets, and the ability of a demand-led approach to deliver. We are not operating in a planned economy; the fact that employers might want an extra 100,000 science and engineering graduates does not mean universities will provide them, not least because that demand may not have translated well to the traditional (18-20 year old) supply-side of the equation. World Class Skills recognises that, if this gap is to be closed, it will be increasingly by “upskilling” and retraining those already in the workplace. Fortuitously, in a sense, this coincides with demographic changes that will see a substantial decline in the 18-20 population by 2020 (though the actual effects of these changes are still debatable). Universities therefore are aware of the need to develop new markets. The delivery of higher level skills and more work-based learning is clearly one avenue, and one worth an estimated £5 billion at that. But for this change to be effective will require both high quality manpower forecasting and planning by industry, and a greater degree of market ‘savvy’ and responsiveness from the higher education sector.

In the move to a demand-led model, the government makes much of its intention to increase the “purchasing power” of employers. It also makes it abundantly clear that most of the growth in training will be funded by those same employers: they may be able to get more of what they want, but they will have to pay for it. This may not be a problem for the top end of the market (whether that be the major multi-national business or the global law firm), who are already using opportunities created by the liberalisation of the education market to build increasingly tailored academic and vocational provision. But the bespoke approach will not work for much of the market, whether in law or anything else. In this context the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are likely to drive much of the agenda. Essentially employer-led organisations, they act as brokers between employers and training providers, and have been empowered to create and control the National Occupational Standards which contain the knowledge and skills outcomes prescribed, at various levels of achievement, for a growing range of occupations. They have money and market information, can claim to speak on behalf of the world of work, and, while they cannot directly impinge on the autonomy of universities to develop and validate their own awards, they do have the power to ‘endorse’ higher education programmes which satisfy their professional and occupational standards.

However, despite some obvious advantages, the sectoral approach adopted by the SSC model overall could also prove to be a rather blunt instrument. Concerns, for example, have been expressed in some areas (not the “justice sector” so far as I am aware) that the SSCs may be open to capture by particular sub-sectors or certain key employers. This may well put to the test the assumption that what is in the (perceived) interests of employers will be in the interests of the economy as a whole. Furthermore, for both the SSCs and educational providers, matching needs and provision, particularly in respect of less obviously vocational courses and disciplines is also likely to be difficult. For example, Skills for Justice is the SSC for the “justice sector”, and yet much of its work, particularly in respect of the criminal justice system is not particularly served by the law schools. Similarly, for the law schools, the fact that a potentially significant number of their graduates will not work in the “justice sector” begs the question as to which other SSCs they should also be talking to. At the least it seems that there are genuine coordination and information gaps to be addressed.

This in fact is but one branch of a much bigger issue implicitly posed by World Class Skills: the extent to which the employment agenda represents a potentially fundamental structural challenge to traditional university disciplines and the construction of higher education as a distinct and distinctive branch of learning.

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Skills, skills, skills!

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….