Late last summer, while parliament was still in recess, the new universities secretary John Denham announced an end to funding for students taking qualifications equivalent to or lower than those they already possessed. Apart from a narrow list of exempt courses, the government had withdrawn support from students wishing to retrain in vital subjects. Needless to say, ICT wasn't on the list, writes Rob Wilson, shadow minister for higher education.
Parliament's Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee immediately began an inquiry into the controversial decision and received 475 submissions, nearly all hostile to the government's plans. It will come as no surprise that several of the submissions came from major players in the IT sector, who emphasised the strategic importance of IT to our economy.
With the growing challenges of globalisation, the strength of our economy rests on the advanced skills of our workforce - and the quality of those skills invariably depends on the ability of our workforce to exploit the latest computer technology.
It is indicative of this government's complacent attitude that it has allowed the number of trained computer experts to fall.
Figures published by Ucas show that since a peak of 29,000 students entering computing courses in 2001, the number had fallen to 17,000 by 2006. We will face real difficulties competing with tech giants in the US, Japan and India if numbers continue to fall, but ministers have compounded the problem by removing financial support from those who want to retrain in computing.
What is most worrying is that ministers are well aware of the problems. Digby Jones, the trade and investment minister, has said, "More than a million jobs depend on the success of the ICT sector, which generates more than 6% of GDP. Its importance to our economy is unquestionable." So at a time when the government emphasising the importance of ICT, it is cutting vital funding from the sector.
The proportion of jobs that carried a skilled IT component rose from 60% in 2005 to 72% in 2006. At the same time, there was a 42% drop in students entering computing and IT degrees.
The combination of increased demand for IT skills in the workforce, coupled with a decline in computing graduates means that there will almost certainly be an ever widening IT skills gap.
Those who truly understand the IT industry know that the government's plans are deeply damaging. Had ministers consulted the industry before last summer's announcement, they would have realised that profound misgivings exist. But they did not consult, and they still fail to appreciate the impact their policy will have.
The CBI was right when it said, "Shifting funding away from ELQs looks like a crude measure that has not been properly discussed with the sector and which will probably have unintended consequences." Just what those consequences will be we will soon discover. But what is beyond doubt is that government thinking is muddled. Ministers claim to believe in lifelong learning, but they have withdrawn support for those hoping to improve their skills. Now, for the first time ever, UK students will be treated as equivalent to non EU students when studying for a degree - with all the additional cost that "overseas" status will bring.
Such a decision should only have been taken after a thorough review of the likely impact. Along with my parliamentary colleague David Willetts, the shadow secretary for innovation, universities and skills, I have urged the government to bring forward its planned review of higher education funding that is due to take place in late 2009, and this review should now consider the government's decision to end support for "second chance" education.
Britain needs a highly skilled workforce to enable our economy to compete alongside our major global competitors. The strength of our IT industry is vital in that challenge. Listening to its concerns will be a priority of an incoming Conservative government.