Beckie Hart: Making the most of Yorkshire’s colleges and universities – and their potential

EVERYWHERE you turn at the moment it seems that Brexit has become all-encompassing, but it is vital for our economy that the Government does not take its eye off the domestic agenda, and education and skills in particular.

Beckie Hart is regional director of the CBI.

In a world where automation is becoming increasingly important, it is likely that obtaining new – and higher – skill levels will be crucial for many people.

And it is only education that can prepare us for a world that is more dynamic, more fluid and more competitive. The most demanding of human skills – such as problem solving and creative thinking – are the kind that only a college or university can teach.

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Amid the last three years of Brexit furore, it may have escaped the attention of some that last year the Prime Minister announced a major review of post-18 education. This has been described by some as the tuition fees review but in fact its scope is much wider.

How can education policy best meet the needs of employers and the skills agenda?

The Government’s declared ambition is a system which better joins academic and technical education – one which the CBI shares. However, as an organisation representing the employers of Yorkshire, and the wider UK, we have our own strong views on what the Government should prioritise.

It is vital that that the education system must become more flexible to enable people to continue learning throughout their careers, not just when they are young.

Often companies succeed because they help their people evolve through education. Colleges serve these firms brilliantly through running tailored courses, taking employees for short periods of time and teaching them the skills they need for new sets of tasks.

It is a sad truth that our colleges have not always been given the consideration or recognition that they deserve. As a national resource, they’ve been underestimated. Historically, they’ve been underfunded. Politically, they’ve been neglected. And post-Brexit – where education is a rare homegrown source of strength – we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We must now start to ask whether colleges could have a new role to play in our education system. Whether the Government should give people an entitlement to an extra qualification between an A-level and a university degree. An apprenticeship for example, or a technical course based at a college.

It could be a year when different backgrounds come together and learn skills they might not otherwise. It could be a profound shift in favour of a higher-skilled economy. Get it right and our colleges might find their roles better recognised and understood. Receiving a new prominence in the lives of our young people and in national life too.

And when it comes to universities, what if they, too, could offer the same kind of flexible service as many of our colleges? The Government should also take the idea of flexible university courses seriously, along with the funding mechanisms to support them.

On the subject of universities, one issue which often divides opinion is that of tuition fees. The CBI is clear that without somehow replacing the lost funding, a cut in tuition fees would do profound harm to our universities, students and, ultimately, our economy.

There are areas in which our country punches far, far above its weight – life sciences, aerospace, financial services and the creative industries. But just as impressive as any of these is our university sector. Four of the world’s top 10 universities are British and many more are close behind that top 10. Per capita, no other country is close.

Not only do our universities educate people to the highest levels, but they are also some of our biggest regional employers, supporters of new businesses and incomparable vehicles of soft power.

Our universities are a precious national asset. They should be protected and nurtured. A cut in tuition fees would be a gross abrogation of responsibility.

Firms understand the politics around tuition fees, but they have a message. Focus on the facts. Our tuition fees system isn’t perfect and the cost of living while studying can be a challenge. But the current system helps make university accessible to everyone, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

England now has greater participation in university among young people from poorer backgrounds than at any time in history. Yet there’s a real risk here. If politicians fan the flames of fear about the cost of university, they could end up deterring the very people who could most benefit from university.

What business wants to see happen now is that – once we get Brexit out of the way – we must end the neglect and underfunding of our further education sector, and consider how we can make the very best use of our superb colleges and universities.

Beckie Hart is the Yorkshire and Humber regional director of the CBI.