From ladders to climbing frames: Institutes of Technology could help

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It’s easy to want government to be more joined up. Looking across the education system – schools, colleges, universities – why couldn’t you take an integrated approach to policy-making? One which could cut across academic and vocational education, and spanning all qualification levels? In other words, why couldn’t the system provide a climbing frame of opportunities, not just a lot of individual – seemingly unconnected, ladders? In reality, it may be too much to hope for. Silos, path dependencies, inertia and the sheer complexity of the task can make more integrated policy development and implementation seem impossible.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to stimulate better links between the parts of the system, particularly when it comes to further and higher education, and the boundaries of technical and vocational education. And there’s good reason to do it. Students should be given the best range of options; institutions shouldn’t be penalised for students choosing to switch between modes. In an increasingly competitive market, becoming a ‘group’ provider with HE and FE provision is a way of increasing an organisation’s turnover with more diverse income streams. It can make good educational and business sense.

It also seems that there’s a political will, across the major parties, for this kind of approach. The Industrial Strategy provides a hook as the government seeks to address current, and future, skills needs in the Brexonomics context. One initiative, about to evolve from the Conservative Party’s manifesto promise, is the establishment of “new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities.”

Institutes of Technology will work closely with employers and help to tackle longstanding weaknesses in higher-level technical education, although the government still needs to clarify its intentions for IoT. For example, the manifesto emphasised degree level education and talked about Regius professorships, Royal Charters and the freedoms enjoyed by universities, whereas January’s Industrial Strategy green paper emphasised levels 3 to 5. Given the history of initiatives in technical education, there’s a healthy scepticism in some quarters about the latest proposals. It could just be seen as a nostalgic throwback policy: Colleges of Advanced Technology were proposed in 1956 to stimulate a technically-literate workforce. But instead, why not imagine what it would take for IoT to make a big difference?

Making IoT work

The skills minister announced that the tendering process for the new IoT would take place in the autumn. This provides a significant opportunity for existing institutions – HE and FE – to help shape their development. As has been the case with National Colleges, both colleges and universities can benefit from getting involved in a range of ways, from business engagement and delivery of courses to strategic leadership and sharing of expertise.  Whatever the government’s final policy design for IoT, it seems obvious that both colleges and universities will need to contribute know-how and resources and will need to work together.

For IoT to be integrated into the wider education and skills ecosystem, there should also be some creative thinking on the part of local government and regional institutions. Working together with local authorities, devolved mayoralties, Local Enterprise Partnerships as well as employers, the vision for IoT should consider local and regional needs and how best to meet them. To ensure that IoT don’t simply cannibalise existing provision in universities and colleges, existing institutions should see the initiative as an opportunity to do new things and get involved as early as possible.

Making IoT ambitious

For IoT to make a difference, they need to work as commercially-viable institutions with a distinct role. But they also need to be catalysts for wider system change. To give them the best chance of that, the government should set clear expectations for IoT to be pioneers in at least four areas: enabling switching between academic and technical education, in both directions; creating integrated, flexible progression routes from FE to HE; linking curriculum to regional industrial strategies; and sharing knowledge and resources with other learning providers, with IoT operating as regional hubs. A simple recipe, but one which could be very effective.

Building climbing frames

It’s unlikely that top-down government policy will build the integrated approach to skills and education which would benefit students and society most. Institutions should be leaders in thinking creatively about the options and proposing solutions, at the local and regional levels. Obviously the scope of that conversation is wider than just IoT. But the new institutes provide an opportunity to stimulate the discussion and model new approaches. Time to bring your ladders together and start building that climbing frame.

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