Professor David Phoenix is Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of MillionPlus.
If the UK is going to be a successful global trading economy outside of the EU, then now more than ever we need to address the historically neglected professional and technical skills shortages hampering employers and dragging down national productivity.
Brexit may, in fact, have the unlikely benefit of forcing policy makers to confront these issues for the first time. The recent budget gave one of the strongest suggestions yet that this may be the case, as Philip Hammond announced “the most ambitious post-16 education reform since the introduction of A-levels 70 years ago”. While his aim may be well intentioned, I would urge caution in the implementation of new ‘T-Levels’, which may simply add another layer of complexity to an already complex system, and reinforce the damaging artificial divide between technical and academic education.
Technical education has long suffered from a strange paradox. Despite the dire need of employers for individuals with higher level skills in technical and vocational areas, these educational paths of study command lower social esteem as well as policy priority (and subsequently funding) than their academic counterparts. If new technical qualifications are to avoid the same fault, they must adhere to core educational principles. Only if technical qualifications have general education at their heart will they be widely recognised and prepare people for careers in the modern economy.
In Germany, where technical study is both deeply entrenched and respected, they have a dual vocational training system which splits learners’ time between the classroom and on-the-job training. It is critical that the educational component and delivery of the UK’s new T-Levels are strong, if they are to be successful. Only then will learners be prepared for a career, not just for their next job.
In the UK there has never been a more diverse range of educational opportunities and qualifications available. However, it is widely recognised that this diversity has not provided benefits, but complexity and division. For all of the reforms to qualifications, including these proposed T-Levels, there has consistently been little thought given to creating a structure which truly meets the needs of the individual learner.
Instead we have clung to a linear age-based system which pushes individuals from one threshold to another and provides no flexibility if learners realise that the education path they are on is not the right one for them, or if they wish to move to higher levels of study later in life.
To address these issues we need not only to consider the nature of the qualifications but should also be focusing on encouraging greater collaboration between schools, colleges and universities. By adapting existing structures, learners could sample different forms of learning. We could create an education system which offers opportunities for all learners to build a portfolio of qualifications, skills, knowledge and social capital, determined by their needs, rather than those of institutions.
The recent area reviews of post-16 education and training institutions, as well as the drive to ensure universities sponsor schools, have provided an opportunity to do this. At London South Bank University we are creating a new ‘Family of Educational Providers’, a group of specialist, like-minded and distinct educational institutions within a formal group structure. The LSBU Family already includes a Multi Academy Trust with a University Technical College and an Engineering Academy. We are now in talks with Lambeth College about their inclusion, to improve the provision of local technical education.
Instead of being restricted by arbitrary age-based milestones, this group will provide horizontal and vertical links between institutions, allowing individuals to transfer comfortably between technical, vocational or academic pathways and to access the learning they need, when they need it. Our model allows each entity (schools, college and university) to achieve excellence in their own sector, whilst providing a new framework to ensure that learners who do not follow the ‘traditional’ path of study are equally supported by the education system.
Bringing institutions together and embedding co-ordinated working should go a long way to address some of the complexities of the present technical and vocational education system. Education institutions, whether universities, schools, or colleges, would do well to consider how, in their own individual contexts, new collaborative links might be built.