As a policy adviser, I spend rather more of my life responding to consultations than I would like. Perhaps it’s surprising then, that I found myself drawn to Wonkhe’s consultation, aimed at making sense of a diverse higher education sector.
When looking at data representations of the higher education sector, you will find my institution, Aston University, in the ‘pre 92 other’ category. Or my personal favourite, the ‘no mission group affiliation’ category. This tells us next-to-nothing about the institution’s heritage, characteristics, and mission, or its place in the higher education sector.
Let me indulge in a short history lesson: Aston University traces its roots back to 1875, where it started life as the School of Metallurgy, as part of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, introducing scientific and technical education to people of all backgrounds in Birmingham. It became the Birmingham Municipal Technical School in 1895, then the Birmingham Central Technical College in 1927. In 1955 it became the UK’s first College of Advanced Technology – one of ten such institutions. Following the seminal Robbins Report in 1963, which recommended that “in future these colleges should in general become technological universities, and that this should be recognised in their title if they so wish”, the institution was granted University status in 1966. Aston University, as we now know it, came into being. Like the other nine former CATs, it’s notable that the ‘technology’ nomenclature was dropped from the title (although, arguably, not the mission).
What happened to the CATs? You will now know them as the predecessor institutions of the well-recognised: Loughborough University; City, University of London; University of Surrey; Brunel University; University of Bath; University of Salford; and University of Bradford. The Welsh CAT was subsumed into Cardiff University and the Chelsea CAT was subsumed into King’s College London.
A distinctive ethos?
As David Willetts writes in his book A University Education:
…one can sense the distinctive ethos of our former Colleges of Advanced Technology where sandwich courses linked to industry still thrive and which do very well on graduate employment and which also do excellent applied research.
In trying to understand our sector now, I want to explore in more detail whether there is still a distinctive group of higher education providers, who like the CATs back in the day, specialise in technology disciplines and whose teaching and research activities orient towards the needs of industry. They are not necessarily “small and specialist” providers, but maybe they fall somewhere in between those and large, comprehensive providers.
Questions abound. How might we identify these institutions, and is it possible to do so objectively with the data we have publicly available?
If we can’t identify a group of focused “Universities of Technology”, what does this tell us about the policy, funding, and regulatory environment and whether our sector is as diverse as we like to think it is?
If we can identify such a group, how would staff, students and applicants feel about the institution having been categorised in this way: is it an attractive proposition like in other countries where an Institute of Technology, for example, is synonymous with prestige (think MIT, or RMIT). Finally, is it a useful grouping for today’s policymakers?
The report ‘Truly Modern Technical Education’, introduced in a Wonkhe article by the vice chancellors of London South Bank University and Aston University, shows why Universities of Technology ought to have currency as a concept today. The government’s flagship technical skills initiative Institutes of Technology (which in this case are partnerships between FE, HE and employers) suggests there is appetite among policymakers for a distinctive role for institutions wishing to differentiate themselves through their focus on technology disciplines and the provision of skills to meet local needs.
Distinctive in data?
Below is my attempt at a suggested framework for how to begin to identify today’s ‘Universities of Technology’ using readily available data:
- Their subject offering is focused on STEM (but particularly technology disciplines), as shown by HESA subject data.
- Work-based learning features strongly in their offering, as shown by HESA sandwich placements data, and apprenticeships data.
- They educate many from their local community, as shown by TEF contextual data.
- They prioritise applied research, as indicated by being active in knowledge transfer partnerships and consultancy, and a significant portion of their research is undertaken with and funded by industry. This is handily illustrated by the “working with business” indicator in the KEF.
- The university has a business school (which works closely with local industry and SMEs, perhaps demonstrated by accreditation).
I’d be delighted for more data-savvy Wonkhe readers to get in touch and make alternative suggestions.
If, after looking at this data in a meaningful way (and I don’t underestimate the difficulty of this task!), a group emerges, we ought to better understand their current contribution. This is important not least because it strikes me that for Government to achieve their vision for a world-class technical education system, they will surely need the help of these institutions.
It may be that by better understanding and articulating the contribution of our focused Universities of Technology, we can begin to work with policymakers to determine what sort of policy and funding environment works best. And we can get further towards achieving a truly diverse sector, where policy and funding reward difference.