Education targets must be scrapped, say bosses

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Britain's business leaders are urging ministers to scrap their target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education by the end of the decade.

Britain's business leaders are urging ministers to scrap their target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education by the end of the decade.

A blueprint published today by the Institute of Directors says the number going to university should be slashed to just 15 per cent, with high-level vocational courses being offered to the rest at further-education colleges.

"The country is short of skilled craftspeople and people with intermediate engineering and information and communications skills," says the paper. "It is not short of media studies graduates." It adds that the balance between academic qualifications and vocational training in the UK is "badly out of kilter".

"It will get worse as the Government struggles, by hook or by crook, to reach its ludicrous 50 per cent target of school leavers going into higher education by 2010."

The blueprint says only the US, Canada and Australia currently recruit a higher percentage of young people into university. "The wild dash towards degrees for all (or more pedantically for half of all) should be abandoned – and then reversed," it declares.

"One of the most serious problems business faces is the problem of skills shortages which arises – firstly – because the labour market cannot satisfactorily overcome some very fundamental basic skills deficiencies in literacy and numeracy and – secondly – because far too many school leavers are siphoned off into higher education and not enough into tough and challenging vocational education."

The blueprint says the institute is "mindful of the many higher education students who would be better advised to go into vocational training ... As far as business is concerned the 'parity of esteem' arguments (over vocational and academic qualifications) are irrelevant". It adds: "A degree is not always a road to a golden career. On the contrary, it can damage job prospects. Students must be told of this fundamental truth."

Ruth Lea, the institute's director of policy, says: "The obsession with sending as many young people as possible into higher education undermines vocational training by making it appear a 'second best'. We need more plumbers and fewer media studies graduates."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said dropping the 50 per cent target "would turn the clock back to an era when only a privileged elite enjoyed a university education".

Margaret Hodge, minister for Higher Education, added: "I am astonished the institute has come out against a target based on our best labour-market forecasts."

¿ New top-up courses to enable graduates with a range of different degrees to teach maths and science in schools are being planned by teacher trainers. The fast-track courses, lasting four to six months, are to be piloted by the Government's Teacher Training Agency (TTA) in a bid to overcome teaching shortages.

The scheme was revealed by Ralph Tabberer, chief executive of the agency, in an exclusive interview with The Independent in the wake of figures showing fewer graduates opting for maths and science courses last year. "More and more people are taking non-standard degree courses," said Mr Tabberer. "The TTA courses are aimed at converting people who have a degree in a similar subject into maths and science teachers."