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Sector backs skills campaign

University’s axing of prestigious skills course triggers outcry against threat to UK manufacturing

The fashion industry has thrown its weight behind a Drapers Save Our Skills (SOS) campaign to salvage the UK’s grassroots skills in garment and textile manufacturing.

De Montfort University in Leicester said this week it has axed its prestigious Fashion Technology BSc due to government spending cuts, pulling the rug from under the teaching of vital skills such as pattern cutting at a time when the UK manufacturing industry is experiencing green shoots of growth.

As revealed by Drapers (January 28), brands and retailers have begun to look again at UK production bases because of rising labour costs and increased competition for capacity overseas. However, growth has been slowed by a lack of skilled workers, forcing some manufacturers to turn down orders or, in the case of LS Manufacturing in Wolverhampton, recruit skilled workers from Eastern Europe.

De Montfort’s Fashion Technology course is one of very few such courses to focus on teaching skills such as garment construction, grading, knitting and weaving, and is regarded as the UK’s leading course of its kind. Students currently on the course will be able to complete it, but it has closed for new admissions.

De Montfort dean Gerard Moran blamed “strict government controls” on the number of places it could offer, and said limits on funding meant the university had to axe some courses in order to focus more attention on its design degrees.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey has since pledged to take the issue up directly with the university, and has agreed to meet Drapers and UK skills minister John Hayes to discuss this and other ways of improving training in grassroots skills in the UK. Hayes has presided over National Apprenticeship Week this week, and his department has a ring-fenced budget of £1.4bn for apprentices.

Vaizey stopped short of pledging to force De Montfort’s hand, stressing that universities must remain autonomous, but said: “It is incredibly important that the Government gets behind a skills agenda. The myth is that we don’t make anything in this country any more but one of the things I have learnt over the last year is that there is a healthy UK manufacturing industry. I support any campaign that focuses on the need to ensure a thriving sector has people with the right skills to sustain it.”

Leading industry figures also underscored the desperate need for increased training in key skills.

Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of womenswear chain Whistles, said: “We are increasingly looking to the UK for high-quality manufacturing capacity, but without our universities offering technical courses it will not be an option for very long.

Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council and owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum, added: “We need to teach skills and if we don’t have the centres for teaching those skills we have got to encourage apprenticeships in a way that is [accredited], and one would hope there will be teaching centres too.”

Drapers intends to take a dossier of evidence to its meeting with Ed Vaizey about how a skills shortage is impeding manufacturing growth.

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