College inquiry stresses needs of employers

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The Independent Online
Academic study could take a back seat to the needs of employers and to international competitiveness in the biggest review of higher education in Britain for more than 30 years.

Five business people and a trades unionist will join seven university representatives, a head teacher, a student and a senior further education college official on Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry, due to report next year.

Terms of reference for the inquiry, published yesterday, emphasise the need for universities to supply graduates with the skills needed by industry. The labour market and the need to be internationally competitive are mentioned 10 times, scholarship only four.

Sir Ron and his committee have been asked to look at how the purpose, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education need to develop to meet the needs of the UK over the next 20 years.

In the past 15 years the proportion of 18-year-olds going to university has risen from one in five to almost one in three, and more mature people have taken up university places. The expansion has led to debate on student grants and loans and on the quality of degrees.

Sir Ron's hardest task will be solving the problem of student support. Students say of grants topped up by loans leave them impoverished, but accept the only way forward is bigger loans paid back over a longer period. Both main political parties have shifted their views on the subject in the past year, but are reluctant to announce their policies before the election.

The committee has been asked to look at degree quality, which is already the subject of an inquiry by the universities' quality council. There has been talk of a national curriculum for universities.

Among its members will be Baroness Dean, formerly the print workers' union leader Brenda Dean, and Sir Geoffrey Holland, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and now a vice-chancellor. Business people have been appointed from Sainsbury's, Psion Plc, Ulster Bank, Glaxo-Wellcome and the Weir Group, a Glasgow-based pump and valve manufacturer's.

Announcing the inquiry's membership and remit yesterday Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said it would have a significant influence on future generations.

"Higher education has a vital role to play in raising the levels of the nation's skills and competitiveness and thus enhancing our capacity to generate wealth and to improve our quality of life," she said.

Labour nominated several members to the committee. David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, welcomed the announcement. He said: "It was developed in the same spirit of bi-partisanship which governed the establishment of the inquiry," he said.