John Denham has announced radical plans to reshape universities by making them respond to business needs and target places on new course for adults in work rather than pre-career students.
The aim is to have approximately 30,000 new places that will be co-funded by employers and the government to refocus the culture and purpose of higher education with business-focused degrees that will be partly designed and funded by employers.
Pre-career students on the new business-focussed courses will be expected to complete meaningful work experience as part of their degree and study for just two much more intensive years, rather than the current three years.
The scheme is part of an attempt to meet the government target to equip 40% of the workforce with graduate-level skills by 2020, a target that cannot depend on 18/19 year olds entering university and will only be met by helping tens of thousands of the existing workforce to study at university. The Brighton & Hove workforce already has a 38% graduate rate compared to a national average of just 26%.
Denham said there was a pool of at least 6 million people with A-levels or the equivalent who were capable of going to university, most to study part time, but the opportunity was not necessarily available. He also stated that the reform would require a cultural change for universities as 36 weeks per annum timetables needed substantial overhaul and the student intake becomes older, already in employment, studying essentially part time and probably living away from campus.
The changes are prompted in part by an anticipated decline of 18 to 24-year-olds going to university, which is projected to decline by around 70,000 by the end of the next decade.
Critics will claim the government is undermining the academic nature of university in pursuit of national productivity, but Denham insisted the reforms will not mean an erosion of the independence of universities or the denigration of the research function for which UK universities are famous.
Denham said he would also like to see universities judged in league tables on a wider range of criteria, including the contribution a university makes to the local economy. This should encourage universities to form closer links to local economies.
He suggested that barriers had to be overcome between universities and business saying, "The caricature from the employer's point of view is that universities are too inflexible, they don't design the courses they want, it is too difficult to work with the university, and from the university side there is a view that business is unreliable, money is invested in setting up courses, and then business changes its mind. "There will be many universities that would be proud to measure themselves by how well they are doing in meeting what the local employer community wants. There are others more likely will say, it is not our job as a university to engage with business in the way that you want."
He said with students now spending on average £9,000 a year in fees, they had higher expectations about how their degree would improve their employability.
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