The aims of the new National Skills Strategy were welcomed by many in FE yesterday - but few had much confidence that they could be achieved with the money available.
Lord Mandelson's announcement that the Government had set itself the task of ensuring that 75 per cent of under-30s received higher education or an advanced apprenticeship was spoiled by attacks from political opponents over the pound;340 million of cuts detailed in a leaked memo.
"The skills system needs to mesh with our university system in such a way that there is a clear vocational route from apprenticeship to technician to foundation degree and beyond," Lord Mandelson said.
But earlier in the Commons, Tory leader David Cameron had challenged Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the funding for FE.
Brandishing the memo, he said: "It calls for a cut in apprenticeship rates of 10 per cent, a cut in the adult learning budget of 10 per cent and a cut in development loans of 50 per cent. Does that leaked memo not tell us that, far from the Prime Minister's mantra about investment, he is planning cuts because of the mess he has made of our finances?"
Lecturers and students alike questioned the commitment to more apprenticeships when officials were warning of likely redundancies and the loss of student places as college and training providers see their funding rates cut.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The government needs to clarify its plans for further education urgently. While there are some positive aspects in the skills strategy, those initiatives will be doomed to failure if the plans to axe staff go ahead."
The National Union of Students was skeptical of the chances of increasing the numbers receiving higher-level qualifications when the Government could hardly fund the current demand for higher education places.
Wes Streeting, the union's president, said: "Given that the Government is struggling to meet its previous target of enabling 50 per cent of the population to go to university, it is difficult to see how this new target will be met. Thousands of university applicants were left disappointed this year, and it will take a significant increase in funding to avoid this happening next year."
While the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has made it clear that it expects colleges and training providers to do more with less, there is a notable omission from the skills strategy: any deadline for this overarching target. Indeed, it is not even referred to officially as a target, but an "ambition".
Others queried the strategy's focus on higher-level skills. It includes a passage acknowledging the research showing that NVQs at level 2 may offer little economic benefit for students. The returns for level 3 are much more evident, offering a clear rationale for this approach.
But Niace, the adult education body, said more needed to be done for students at lower levels. Alastair Thomson, Niace's principal advocacy officer, said: "Despite the achievements of the Skills for Life strategy, there are millions of people - including those most in need - who haven't yet been helped.
"We welcome the Government's continuing commitment to basic skills but will need to ensure there is a full ladder of progression throughout the whole qualifications and curriculum framework. Adults, particularly at entry level, need more, not less, funding."
Mr Thomson said the strategy favoured employers over individuals. "The new skills strategy is strong on meeting employer needs," he said. "However, the Government's statutory duty is to meet the reasonable needs of individuals, not businesses. The primary responsibility to increase skills in the workplace rests with British business."
The strategy also proposed what it claimed was "the largest simplification of the skills landscape for many years" with the abolition of 30 FE organisations.
More than half of these are just consequences of the new funding arrangements due in April, with nine regional Learning and Skills Councils and nine regional skills partnerships being eliminated. Arguably by this measure, putting local authorities back in the frame for 16-19 funding has added more than a hundred more institutions into the system.
Standards Verification UK will lose its public funding, while the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority will cease involvement in adult skills. Investors in People is to close and the number of sector skills councils will be reduced.
Additionally, the Institute for Learning will lose its Government funding, raising questions over whether members will be compelled to pay to join. Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), said: "IfL will work with members, and with the Government, over the next three years on arrangements for the funding of membership."
Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK) will be cut back, with the Learning and Skills Improvement Service taking over any work outside of its role as a sector skills council. "We support a simplification of the skills landscape, and welcome the commitment to strengthening the role of employer-led sector skills councils," David Hunter, LLUK's chief executive, said.
However, in contrast to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills' hope that quango funding could go direct to providers, these cuts are instead being made to meet the demand for efficiency savings at BIS.
Colleges welcomed the promise of less oversight and more freedom, as well as the strategy's explicit acknowledgement of rising standards in FE.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "We very much welcome the prospect of greater autonomy for all colleges, reflecting their achievements in the past decade and according them a level of trust that will allow them to build still further on these achievements."
He said that uniting higher education and advanced apprenticeships in the strategy's overarching target was a welcome acknowledgement of the equal and complementary status of academic and vocational routes.
But he warned that the "food labelling" of courses by success rates and chances of employment, while potentially useful, should not add to the long list of performance reports colleges have to submit.
How these measures of employability are calculated is likely to become a great concern, since the strategy also signalled that funding will be based on employment outcomes, not just qualification success.