Vocational education should not be removed from other pathways

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Political forces are reshaping higher education. The government is building a new industrial strategy. We have a new Green Paper – ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ – out for consultation.

One of the Green Paper’s so-called ‘pillars’ is to build a “proper system” of technical education. The Conservative Party manifesto stated, “over the next five years, we will deliver three million more [apprentices] and ensure they deliver the skills employers need”. The new employer levy will fund and drive the policy.

The apprentice levy has augured a revolution in the skills debate. It was a policy to deliver high-paid, high-skilled jobs, which was welcome given previous discourses of vocational and work-based training that cast this strand of learning as mainly training, related to basic skills. This often undermined vocational learning’s legitimacy within the higher education sector, and more generally as a positive choice for young people. Yet the new Green Paper, unfortunately, returns to a deficit discourse, suggesting the “building a new system of technical education to benefit the half of young people who do not go to university” and “ensuring everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy.”

The skills and innovation nexus

The revolutionary thing about degree apprenticeships (delivered by universities) is they carry parity of value and esteem for learners and employers with any other graduate. They offer a genuine choice to young people, producing a new breed of graduates who are employed and undertaking advanced work-based learning while they study. Advanced vocational learning can only deliver the skills industry needs if placed alongside and made inseparable from leading research in each sector; there is a great deal of synergy with that other side of the university mission.

As reported by the City Growth Commission and the ‘Northern Futures’ initiative, the academy is uniquely positioned to bring wider national economic benefits by aligning research and skills. It is no coincidence that the University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre delivers higher and advanced apprenticeships on the same site as its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. The teaching is delivered by those who work alongside companies on their research challenges, those same companies who place apprentices in the Training Centre.

Introducing a new type of study, with advanced work-based learning at its core, supported by novel pedagogies and curriculum, informed by research, changes the learners and changes the university. The educational pathways now being developed reimagine vocational learning and provide new interdependencies between the workplace, academic knowledge, and research application.

Parity of esteem

For this approach to be successful, it is vital for society to value advanced vocational training. The new routes must mean something much more positive than as something for those who do not go on to university through an academic pathway. It is important to understand the lives of students who currently enter work-based learning: how they understand themselves and the value and purpose of their advanced (higher) education.

Universities must play their part. Success requires a departure from normal frameworks for university study and creating new relationships with industrial partners and employers to tailor the curriculum and find new pedagogies which link with their industry research. Trailblazer employer groups must help to define the curriculum, standards of delivery, and assessments of competence that create pathways through to the top of each profession. The government must present the skills agenda as advanced vocational training for a high skills economy and not as a basic skills agenda for those who miss out on university.

This strategy will avoid the learning of skills becoming too specific to particular contexts but ensure it engages “with higher-level skills and knowledge and with the development and use of broad, high-level capability that suggests that it has capacity to be recognised and enhanced through university involvement”. The intellectual value of combining work and education is, of course, reflected on by vocational learners. Apprentices by their very natures have the ambition to progress from training to higher education and on to the professions.

Accrediting bodies are responding with an assessment framework for professional status for those taking advanced vocational routes. The Engineering Council, for example, is developing a pathway to professional registration as Chartered Engineer and Incorporated Engineer through work-based learning, enabling students to gain the required competence without needing to leave employment. Academic rigour can be assured by aligning with existing accredited courses.

The power of language

The use of language is important. While we try and develop a standardised framework, it is apposite to reflect upon the purposes of work-based training and vocational routes through higher education. Critical engagement with the emerging and contrasting discourses around vocational higher education can help create that very parity of esteem with academic routes which we seek.

Training – where work is part of the learning and is assessed, and that includes pathways through to degrees and access to the professions – is a model that can be replicated in different skills sectors. A vision for a new technical education system is needed; one that does not separate skills, higher learning and research-led innovation, but instead powerfully combines them.

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