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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Science wins champion in shake-up
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

Chemistry lesson
A string of university science departments have closed
The new Ministry for Innovation, Universities and Skills is not just about ensuring today's students are ready for tomorrow's world of work - but that they shape it.

Mr Brown often warned as Chancellor that Britain needed a strong scientific base to punch above its weight in an increasingly competitive global market.

By including innovation and science in the higher education brief for England the new prime minister is throwing his weight behind the sector for the long term.

Although Britain's scientific research is regarded as among the best in the world, the decline in the numbers studying science has sounded alarm bells throughout academia and industry.

A string of universities have closed physics or chemistry departments in recent years because of a lack of would-be students.

University funding

And the number of science and maths degrees on offer at UK universities has fallen by a tenth over the past decade, a report for the academics' union the UCU claimed recently.

This has sparked fears that the country's science and engineering base may not be able to cope with the ever-increasing competition from nations like China and India.

So one of secretary of state John Denham's key priorities has to be to safeguard the position of science within higher education.

His new department will oversee the science budget and a new Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser will also be created.

Mr Denham takes charge of the university sector just nine months into the new top-up fees regime.

Since September 2007, higher education institutions have been allowed to charge variable fees up to a maximum of 3,000 for undergraduate courses.

The early evidence is that students have not been put off going to university by the much increased costs of attending, despite vociferous warnings to the contrary.

Back to class

But university vice-chancellors are already saying that this level of undergraduate investment is not enough to sustain the sector's place in a highly competitive world.

At a conference this week, the architect of the current funding system, Sir Ron Dearing, suggested that differential fees defined by the market could be the way forward.

As a former student union leader, Mr Denham will be acutely aware how politically unsavoury such a move would be.

But with the review of university funding not beginning until 2009, he will have a little time to get his head around the figures.

However, it is perhaps the third part of his brief - skills - in which he faces the toughest challenge.

Basic literacy

The recent Leitch report highlighted the yawning skills gap in Britain.

It warned that even if current targets are met, skills in the UK will still lag behind comparable countries in 2020, affecting the nation's competitiveness and ultimately everyone's standard of living.

Despite progress, parts of the UK's skills base remain weaker than those of other developed nations.

Sir Sandy Leitch highlighted the fact that five million adults lack functional literacy and more than 17 million have difficulties with numbers.

The report called for a major improvement in the skills of the workforce, with 95% of adults gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills and 40% gaining degree level qualifications.

The new secretary of state will have a tough job working out how best to persuade thousands of adults to go back to class and get some more qualifications under their belts.

Meanwhile more than one in six youngsters still leave school unable to read, write or add up properly.

And so back to improving standards in schools.

Mr Denham's predecessors hoped the introduction of the new specialised Diplomas and reforms in 14 to 19 education would help prevent youngsters leaving school without any qualifications.

It seems he will have to turn back to his new colleague Ed Balls in the Department for Children, Schools and Families for some help with this part of the brief.

Skills training 'needs shake-up'
05 Dec 06 |  Education
Brown shakes up education arena
28 Jun 07 |  Education

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