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Chilly response to Microsoft boss

Principals unmoved by suggestions that colleges should act together and badger ex-students for cash. Neil Munro reports businesses must get more involved in further and higher education, even to the extent of designing courses and influencing students' decisions over what to study.

This was the message from Bob McDowell, a vice-president with Microsoft in the United States, who said there was "a major disconnect" between the worlds of work and education in most developed countries.

In a provocative address to the Association of Scotland's Colleges, Mr McDowell called for students to pay for the "privilege" of their education, saying former students should be chased up to help fund their alma maters, and that fewer but more highly paid academics were what was needed.

Mr McDowell, a regular visitor to Scotland, also questioned the sheer number of FE and HE institutions in such a small country. In his home state of Virginia, there were only 16 colleges and universities for a population of 7 million, compared with 63 in Scotland with a population of 5 million.

He said that having too many institutions led to expensive overheads and problems finding quality staff.

He suggested that colleges and universities should become more integrated to achieve "critical mass" and that they should market themselves as a whole rather than as individual institutions.

Mr McDowell also used the example of Virginia, where he attended a military institute, to question the funding regime of post-school education in the UK. The state-funded University of Virginia received only 7 per cent of its income from the state; the rest came from existing and former students and from business coffers.

The financial connection was one of the factors that helped cement business relationships with the college and university sectors, he continued. "The buyer has to get involved in designing the product," he said.

Businesses across the world were complaining about the quality of students they were getting from FE and HE, he claimed. Even Microsoft, which could count on recruiting the very top graduates, still had to run remedial classes in writing. "That has got to change," he said.

Although Mr McDowell was at pains to stress that he was pointing the finger at business as well as education, he said the IT world in particular was changing incredibly fast and education was not responding rapidly enough.

He was given a polite but sceptical hearing by the college principals and board chairs who attended the conference.

Christina Potter, the new principal of Dundee College, said it was "preposterous" to suggest that former students who were graduating with debts averaging pound;20,000 should be required to help fund their institutions.

"I'd be affronted to be asked to do so if I was in that position," she commented.

But Mr McDowell responded that US students graduated with debts as well.

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