Last week I highlighted wage rate dynamics, devolution, further calls for funding to support universities in driving regional economic growth and Solent LEP’s maritime strategy. This week, the headlines focussed on growth sectors, skills gaps, the future shape of Further and Higher Education (FE and HE), the impact of Health and Safety cuts and Assisted Area Status for Devon.

Growth appears to have a foothold, with the preliminary estimate of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first quarter of 2014 showing an increase of 0.8% compared with growth of 0.7% in the fourth quarter of 2013. CBI chief policy director, Katja Hall, commented on the latest figures, saying: “The economy is motoring ahead with progress across many sectors as confidence continues to build among businesses and consumers. Growth in the first quarter was mostly driven by the service sector, but we’re also seeing our industrial base playing an important role in the recovery, with manufacturing output rising steadily”. The recent update on the impact of the industrial strategy also presented early successes and future priorities.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that the labour market continues to perform strongly but cautioned that productivity is still a key weakness in the UK economy. Business optimism among manufacturers saw its sharpest improvement since 1973, on the back of strong growth in orders at home and abroad according to the latest CBI quarterly Industrial Trends Survey, and in the West Country a revival in the construction industry is on the cards as private housing and commercial sectors boom, however, the news has been tempered with a warning of significant skills gaps in the region. A new report entitled Local Roots to Growth suggests councils are best placed to shape local economies whilst ensuring that the right type of growth is delivered sustainably. The report urges Local Authorities to be brave in long-term planning and investment in infrastructure and skills, but also cautions that “the localism rhetoric must turn to reality”, in order to give councils real influence over local finance to borrow, spend and earn with greater freedom.

On May 1, the Vice-Chancellor here at Exeter and Dr Judy Genshaft of the University of South Florida (USF) took to the floor in an interactive and engaging discussion session at Going Global, the world’s foremost education conference.  Vince Cable also gave a public policy lecture on the future for higher and further education institutions, teachers and students, outlining proposals for new national colleges as an opportunity for the Further Education sector, saying “high-level vocational training has fallen through the gap between our FE and HE systems and we are way behind where we need to be”. Association of Colleges’ Deputy Director Gill Clipson welcomed the announcement, stating that: “Colleges are at the heart of higher level skills training. Therefore we understand the reasoning behind the call for a new generation of national colleges, based on the existing FE model, to meet the skills needs in specific areas, particularly the emerging economies including digital and nuclear.” This came as NIACE called for ongoing impact assessment of Further Education loans, pointing out that the latest Government figures show that, 12 months on from the introduction of 24+ advanced learning loans, almost 65,000 loan applications have been received, against an initial estimate of 85,000.

NIACE is optimistic that a new HEFCE report will lead to concerted action to address the dramatic decline in part-time HE. Nick Davy, HE Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), commented: “This report is another useful addition to our understanding of this market”, going on to say that: “We would ask HEFCE to continue to maintain its research interest in this area …so that we can develop a full understanding of part-time HE and develop sensible evidenced based policies.”

A consultation on the contents of the draft European Social Fund (ESF) Operational Programme for England 2014 to 2020 (part of the 2014 to 2020 European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme in England) has been launched to ensure partners have the opportunity to comment on the main document, setting out the strategy and priorities for the use of funds in support of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

People are more likely to be killed or seriously injured while working in the South West of England than anywhere else in the country, a recent report has found. The news broke close to Workers’ Memorial Day (Monday) during which the TUC cautioned that Government cuts in vital health and safety ‘red tape’ threaten lives at work.

Devon County Council has warmly welcomed the Government’s announcement today recommending approval for Assisted Area status to cover large areas of Devon up to 2020. 50 of Devon’s poorest electoral wards could be given a greater share of state regeneration cash after the Government confirmed which are deserving of most help. The Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership also welcomed the announcement of extra Government support.

I hope you find this information useful.