THE Government should divert resources away from universities and into workplaces if it is serious about tackling the skills gap, according to one of Britain's leading business organisations.
The need to improve the quality of work-place training, especially in smaller businesses, may mean tough decisions about spending priorities , delegates heard at the Learning City in Europe 2001 conference in Birmingham.
"There should be no mucking about," said Chris Humphries, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who also chaired the Government's national skills task force. "If we need restructuring then that's what we should do. As far as I'm concerned, you can take the money from the universities and put it there, because that's where it's needed."
The conference heard that Britain is near the bottom of the international league for the proportion of 17-year-olds in education, with only Mexico, Greece and Turkey showing a poorer record. Yet participation in higher education is up compared with other countries.
Mr Humphries said a third of business owner-managers have no qualifications and only one in five firms with fewer than 50 employees has a staff member with knowledge of training. "These firms have no understanding bout how to train staff," he said. While many large companies have good training policies, smaller businesses see it as an extra cost.
His concern was echoed by Ken Robinson, professor of arts education at Warwick University, who questioned the Government drive to boost numbers attending universities. More thinking was needed about what purpose higher education served, he said. "It is not simply a matter of saying we need to have more graduates, and that if we have more of them we will get full employment," he said.
"Saying we need more people at university is like saying we want more people to go to the theatre. What is the point if what they get when they go there is dreadful?
"Employers are beginning to say to graduates 'you have a degree, but what can you do?'" John Towers, chairman of Birmingham and Solihull Learning and Skills Council and chairman of MG Rover, pressed home the need for a flexible work force which could adapt to a changing job market.
"Twenty five per cent of the region's GDP comes from Birmingham. In the traditional economy, these figures were based on a critical mass of a manual production work force. In the new economy, human assets and intellectual capacity are going to make the difference."