A further and higher education participation super target was set by government this week as part of a far-reaching skills white paper that offered learning providers greater autonomy in return for their help in delivering a new era for training in the UK.
Three-quarters of people should have participated in HE or have completed an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician-level course by the time they are 30, under proposals made in the national skills strategy Skills for Growth, published on Wednesday.
The 75 per cent target, described as an "ambition" in the paper, "broadens out" but does not supercede the existing 50 per cent HE participation target. Government has stressed that the 50 per cent HE target remains unchanged, with the skills sitting alongside and augmenting it.
But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was unclear on whether the balance between the HE and training elements of the target resolved into a strict 50-25 per cent split or whether the ratios could be treated as fluid in pursuit of the new overarching 75 per cent target.
Key to the new target is the Government's aim of raising the number of people with high-level vocational and technical skills, creating a new "technician class". It says that while considerable progress has been made in improving the levels of basic skills and in raising HE participation, the UK is not moving fast enough to develop intermediate skills.
It proposes an extra 35,000 advanced apprenticeships with investment rising from pound;17 million in 201011 to pound;115 million in 201415. The Government wants more of those studying for advanced apprenticeships to go on to study in HE and is proposing pound;1,000 golden hellos
It proposes composite honours and masters degree programmes that will incorporate elements of apprenticeships. It is understood these will be accredited and validated by universities and offered in conjuction with FE providers and employers.
New institutions called University Technical Colleges are proposed for 14 to 19-year-olds which are designed to increase the numbers of young people entering the workplace with the skills required by employers and the throughput of students to advanced diplomas and on to study in HE. These will effectively be an extension of the academies programme run by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Throughout the White Paper, the focus is on skills that matter for improving the prospects of individuals and the economy as a whole, with funding cut for "lower priority courses".
It proposes directing around pound;100m of the skills budget, including Train to Gain, into areas that drive economic growth and jobs. The White Paper highlights key areas such as the low-carbon industries and information technologies.
To achieve this, FE must be "driven by the demands of the market", the paper says. Businesses will be given the power to shape the provision and training.
The White Paper confirms the role of Regional Development Agencies in developing skills strategies that will "articulate employer demand and more closely align skills priorities with economic development".
A market-driven approach will also be underpinned by individual skills accounts, which will be available to everyone over 18 from next year. The money will be paid direct to providers.
Further embedding a market approach is the proposal to rate providers using a new national scorecard based on "traffic light" data that measures and makes public a range of information relating to providers and courses. These data will include quality ratings, customer satisfaction scores, course employability rates and ready reckoners on how courses subsequently affect people's wages.
Funding for quality improvement will be devolved increasingly to providers and, in return for improved performance, learning providers are promised greater overall funding autonomy.
This autonomy is two-tier: greater funding freedom and flexibility for all providers, and enhanced freedoms for providers deemed outstanding. It is understood that all providers will see a greater degree of their funding delivered in lump sums, with less arriving in small pots tied to specific programmes.
The White Paper promises to simplify the "skills landscape" by removing more than 30 publicly-funded skills bodies over the next three years. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills is tasked with this job, which includes reducing substantially the number of sector skills councils by 2012.