The Chancellor’s pre-Budget reveal of new money for technical education should be welcomed widely, not just by the editors of the Sunday papers who got their scoop. There is insufficient prestige for technical education, and there’s a need to invest to redress the balance with academic routes.
£500m a year to improve the intensity of courses and support work placements is a welcome additional resource for the under-funded further education sector. And when this is combined with the apprenticeship levy and additional government funding, it seems like an unusually good time to be working in this area of further education.
As David Morris wrote on Wonkhe last summer, the proposals of the Sainsbury Review into technical education pose both challenges and opportunities for universities. The qualification choices, how they link to traditional HE paths and the relative attractiveness of vocational options are all important questions for providers. The challenges facing universities seem pretty minor in the scheme of things, not least when compared with the bigger challenge the government has set itself in aiming for parity of esteem and aspiration for technical pathways.
It’s been widely recognised, not least in the Industrial Strategy Green Paper, that the effectiveness of promoting technical education relies on two key factors about which there’s some legitimate scepticism: useful information, advice and guidance, and employer engagement. It’s possible that there will be significant movement on the former as the government accepted in February an amendment to its Technical and Further Education Bill which would see providers of technical education allowed access to school pupils to promote their wares. But it’s clear from a useful House of Commons Library report [pdf] of February 2017 that while there are initiatives in place, there is still significant work to do in improving careers and education advice for young people.
For all the statements, and there are many, of ‘we must do better’, there needs to be investment to ensure that schools are capable of providing their pupils with access to current and accurate information to support their career choices. This seems only ever more pressing with the expansion of apprenticeships and redefining of the technical routes: while reducing 13,000 options to 15 should help understanding, those changes still need to be explained. And without a track record of the new qualifications, there will inevitably be wariness in some quarters about the long-term value of taking up those options.
And wariness there should be. If only two-thirds of apprenticeships complete, as recent DfE statistics showed (when “three million apprenticeships” is really only two million), then there are reasonable questions to ask about whether this is the right choice for any individual. It’s essential, therefore, that pupils are given the contextual information about the relative opportunity provided by any given route, including university options. The value – intellectual as well as in employability – will vary enormously by course type, discipline, region and employment sector as well as by the shifting sands of the national economy.
As if this weren’t complicated enough, we should also consider the role of employers in the design and delivery (e.g. work placements as well as full-on apprenticeships) of technical education routes. As the recent Green Paper states: “It will be essential for [technical] routes to be led by employers to meet the needs of our industrial strategy.” This assumes somewhat homogenous ‘employer blocs’ and that there is the time, expertise and willingness to contribute in these areas. Where there are well-functioning employer associations and professional bodies, it would seem that there’s more likely to be fruitful engagement, but we ought to be sceptical that it’s easy to turn on this tap.
Investment of both political energy and money in promoting technical education is a good thing and one for which its champions like David Sainsbury and Alison Wolf should be pleased. There is the potential for valuable options for young people, for the development of important skills which are useful for both individuals and their economy. But we must not forget that there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that the highest-quality information, advice and guidance is provided to young people (and to older people, for that matter) and that meaningful employer engagement won’t happen by magic.