Skills white paper sets out new era for training

20th November 2009 at 00:00
A 75 per cent target is `ambition' for HE participation in England

A new "super target" for participation rates in further and higher education was launched in England last week.

It is part of a far-reaching skills white paper, unveiled by the Westminster Government, which offers learning providers greater autonomy in return for helping to deliver a new era for training south of the border.

Training and skills here are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, so the proposals will not apply, although they may well have an influence. The SNP Government launched its own Skills for Scotland strategy in 2007, handing responsibility for shaping it to Skills Development Scotland.

The English white paper, Skills for Growth, wants to see three-quarters of people participating in higher education or having completed an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician-level course by the time they are 30.

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 this HE target remains unchanged, with the skills sitting alongside and augmenting it.

But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which issued the white paper, 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 over-arching 75 per cent target.

This takes England's ambition well beyond that of Scotland, where the Government still adheres to the target simply of 50 per cent of young Scots entering higher education in a university or FE college, with no deadline attached. Although the numbers have fallen below that level in recent years, they are made easier to reach by the strong showing of "degree-equivalent" Higher National diplomas and certificates.

England now aims to take this a stage further by 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 2010-11 to pound;115m in 2014-15.

The Government wants more of those studying for advanced apprenticeships to go on to study in HE, and pound;1,000 golden hellos for the 1,000 best apprentices.

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 conjunction with FE providers and employers.

New institutions called "university technical colleges" are proposed for 14 to 19-year-olds. These 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.

Throughout the white paper, the focus is on skills "driven by the demands of the market", with funding cut for "lower priority courses". Businesses will be given the power to shape the provision and training.

It proposes directing around pound;100m of the skills budget into areas which can boost economic growth and jobs - emulating the Scottish Government's similar approach. It also highlights key areas such as the low-carbon industries and information technologies.

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 their courses - including how they subsequently affect people's wages.

The white paper also 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.

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