With a few weeks to go until George Osborne’s first Conservative-only Budget in July, he has already sent a cold chill down the backs of the public sector with his plans for the next phase of cuts.
Among the areas that’ll be affected by the £2.5bn worth of public spending cuts will be universities. This space will take a hit as part of trimming £450m off the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills’ £13.2bn budget. The rest will be covered, according to the department, by underspends.
This, of course, will have educationalists up in arms, but there’s no doubt that cuts have to be made and, like the majority of business leaders that had to be on their toes during the recession, they have to cut their cloth accordingly.
Whereas businesses almost immediately felt the majority of the effects of the so-called “Great Recession” of 2008/9, along with the three or four years afterwards, the giant oil tanker that is the public sector takes a lot longer to turn.
Although there was a lot of talk of large scale cuts to government-funded services by the coalition after the UK was left with a Labour-created economic wasteland, they were not immediately hard and heavy. But, even now things are looking more optimistic, they are still necessary.
As businesses have to constantly evolve to meet market requirements and adjust to shifts in the economy, so should higher and further education. And if that means doing it on fewer resources then so be it.
They will contend that it will lead to a less skilled and educated workforce, but I would argue strongly that would not be the case.
In fact, it presents an opportunity to do the complete reverse. Of course, there is a place for degree-level learning, but practical, work-based training, in whatever sector, has to be the way forward.
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The writing’s on the wall for higher education when firms like PwC are coming round to my way of thinking by offering apprenticeships as a way to develop and retain staff.
The sole purpose of universities is to educate. That’s pretty much its only product. They are also the equivalent of a coal-fired power station that constantly needs feeding with fuel, which in their case is public money. They can only create heat and energy with a constant flow of government cash.
On the other hand, businesses are almost self-perpetuating because products or services are income generators and, through training of staff, education is a positive bi-product of their activities.
Businesses are pretty much a “naturally occurring university” with the motion required to boost GDP and fill the country’s coffers, rather than be a drain on resources, as well as arm the nation’s workforce with the skills and experience they need.
My proposal to transform Job Seeker’s Allowance in to a “job reward” payment, used to help create a fully-funded national apprenticeship scheme, very much fits into this mould and will enable a larger number of young people gain skilled employment than will ever walk out of the front gates of the country’s halls of academia.
It’s also a win for further education providers and could reduce the impact the cuts will have on them. They will benefit from this business-led vocational approach because the on-the-job training that employers deliver has to be underpinned by some classroom learning, assessment and validation with recognised qualifications.
If universities have to circle the wagons due to budget cuts it doesn’t mean that higher education returns to being the preserve of an elite few. It should be for those who do need a university education for a selected group of occupations. However, there should be a shift away from university at any cost towards vocational training that gives employers the skilled workers they require and makes a positive contribution to the economy and society.
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