Laying foundations for solving the skills gap

by Paul Carslake, Editor,

This week’s announcement of two-year foundation degrees will at last give industry a chance to plug some of the skills gaps.

Let’s put aside the rather snobbish criticisms voiced over the past few days that these qualifications will in some way devalue `regular’ degree courses, and the claims from the opposition that David Blunkett is only taking this route as a short cut to get more people into higher education.

The reality is that the secretary of state has handed UK manufacturing companies a huge opportunity to get the kind of employees they really need.

In terms of numbers, there are probably just about enough graduates from three and four-year degree courses coming onto the labour market. True, some employers do not think the quality is high enough, pointing to shortcomings in `soft’ skills like communications, presentation, teamworking or creativity.

But the real shortages are in the next level down. Vocational qualifications like HNDs and HNCs have suffered from the creation of new universities, as students have opted to try for an honours degree (and sadly, often fail or drop out) rather than go to a college of further education and follow a vocational course leading to a diploma.

The move to create foundation degrees could redress the balance, as they offer a more obvious route for continuing from foundation degree to honours degree for those who want to, and an appropriate qualification after two years’ study for those who don’t.

And as it’s completely new, there is a golden opportunity for employers to get in on the act and help draw up the curriculum, as well as pitching in with work experience placements. This is an attractive alternative to the Modern Apprenticeship, which can cost a firm £30,000 to £40,000 for each apprentice over three years.

Compare that with a new foundation degree, which could incorporate a good part of the same content, deliver comparably skilled graduates, but is paid for largely out of the public purse instead.