The publication of the Browne Review and the need for the UK to find an alternative way to fund higher level skills has highlighted the need to look again at how we support the education and training of the population post 19 and post level 3.
What is apparent to an increasing number of people is that there is a need for a more fundamental reform of our higher education system and one that goes way beyond the raising of tuition fees and deciding who pays for what and when.
This is not to criticise what is presently being provided in terms of quality or even value for money – although criticisms of the amount of teaching provided at undergraduate level have been around for some time and there are many calling for a "student charter" that would spell out what undergraduates are likely to get for their money.
Most people would agree that our universities are some of the finest in the world and their research records are second to none.
The model of three year full-time degrees
However, what is questionable is whether the model of three year full-time degrees at the core of the undergraduate curriculum is really what's needed, at least in the present quantities, in today's world.
The problem with the approach that we have adopted to date is that it starts with an underlying assumption that the institutional base is pretty well fixed.
If we accept that broadly speaking the existing pattern of providers is what we need for the future, the questions that we then go on to consider are "How do we fund universities?" or "How do we ensure that individuals from a variety of social backgrounds can go to university?"
A more relevant approach perhaps is to ask first of all "What are we a trying to achieve"" and then and only then to consider "What's the best way of going about it?"
A means to an end – and not as an end in themselves
In the final analysis, it's fairly obvious that institutions must be seen as a means to an end – and not as an end in themselves . The starting point must surely be with the needs of the individual/ employer and community and then, and only when those have been determined, can we move on to determine the role that various organisations might play in meeting those needs.
If we start by analysing what is required of our higher education and training system as we move through the 21st century, rather than how we might best preserve the institutional status quo, we may well arrive at a quite different conclusion as to the way forward.
The most obvious difference that this approach brings will lie in the implications of the ongoing need for lifelong and just-in-time up-skilling and updating opportunities that can be undertaken alongside a job or other lifestyle commitment.
Working lives are now stretching towards fifty years and beyond and the experience of the last half century alone would clearly show how much skills needs have changed over that time.
There is little indication that the pace of change will slow down – indeed the likelihood is that it will speed up.
Whichever way you look at it, the future doesn't lead to the conclusion that the bulk of funding for higher level skills should be spent on front loaded three year degree programmes taken by students in their early twenties.
A second conclusion is that most higher level skills will need to be delivered nearer home – either through the medium of on-line technology, at the work place or at a local place of study.
Those who are in work and/or with family commitments will not be able to move easily around the country, having neither the time nor the money to do so. Given the constraints of day to day living, their skills needs can only really be met on the doorstep.
This being the case the answer is surely to move more resources from full-time to part-time provision and to build on the capacity and experience of the college sector, with its universal and local presence, to take on a higher percentage of this work.
Division of funding streams
The majority of colleges nowadays have the capacity and the will to do more at levels four and five, supporting higher level apprenticeships and providing modular programmes for those in work or those who wish to change careers.
A division of funding streams between vocational and academic might also help to ensure that the needs of employers and the economy were not overlooked by those whose interests are more academic and that the needs of part-time students were given equal attention to those who are able to study full-time.
If colleges become the new "polytechnics" at their top end (or maybe even University Technical Colleges), with an emphasis on part-time as well as full-time vocationally related degrees, while the universities pursued more academic studies and higher level research, would that be such a bad thing?
David Collins is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)