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Modern universities – beware of the higher technical trap

The government's higher technical agenda appears to offer a golden opportunity for modern universities. Debbie McVitty weighs up the pros and cons.
This article is more than 3 years old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Over the weekend at a Conservative Party Conference fringe session co-hosted by Hepi and MillionPlus, universities minister Michelle Donelan reiterated highlights from the Prime Minister’s speech on skills from earlier in the week – and suggested that modern universities are particularly well suited to respond to the agenda for growth in higher technical provision.

Specifically, she said, she would like to see “20 per cent, 30 per cent or even 50 per cent” of modern universities’ offer located in the higher technical domain – which by implication would mean more courses shorter than the full three-year degree, probably in a subset of subject areas, and with a clear alignment to regional industrial priorities.

MillionPlus chair and vice chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University Rama Thirunamachandran appeared to concur with the general sentiment, making a special case for the role of modern universities in higher technical:

The need to boost work-focused and technical education has rarely been so pressing. Modern universities specialise in these types of courses, offering an enormous variety of work-relevant courses as well as higher technical qualifications that upskill and reskill our current and future workforce.

There’s been plenty of criticism of the three-year full degree as the default target higher level qualification, with last year’s Augar review one of the higher profile examples. You can point to (contested) rates of graduate under-employment, or to the UK’s relatively poor showing in the overall rates of acquisition of higher level skills to make the case. The Prime Minister did both in his speech on the lifetime skills guarantee.

But modern universities looking to make themselves particularly responsible for the higher technical agenda should tread carefully.

The case for

One of the concerns in the university sector is that an expansion in higher technical could mean a default to provision in further education colleges, essentially asking universities and colleges to compete for scarce resources.

Given that both universities and colleges already deliver higher technical routes in a range of relevant subject areas, and that local needs and expertise may differ, the sector has been keen to emphasise the need for partnership between FE and HE to identify and address regional priorities.

Partnering with FE is an area where modern universities have a distinct advantage, following years of franchised and validated provision and progression compacts, though by all accounts partnerships have frayed in recent years under competitive pressure.

The higher level skills agenda offers an opportunity for modern universities to carve out a distinctive role in the national higher education ecosystem rather than being unfairly collectively perceived as second best to research-intensive universities.

The temptation must be to, for once, receive plaudits for doing something well that demonstrably contributes to a national public policy agenda – it must have been rather nice, for example, for modern universities to receive the recognition in Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s recent speech to Universities UK which took issue with an “implicit narrative that every university needs to measure itself against Oxbridge.”

And, if we hope that one of the merits of the new higher technical route is that it will create new pathways into higher education and will therefore potentially be taken up in greater numbers by mature students, commuter students, and especially those from less advantaged backgrounds, then you want modern universities, with their established experience and knowledge of the support those students need, to be at the vanguard.

The case against

Except there’s the rub – is there any reason, at this stage, to assume that higher technical routes will be more appealing to those from lower-income backgrounds other than prejudice about what kinds of people are best suited to what kinds of educational pathways?

The reputational economy of higher education – unfair as it is – judges the quality of the university by the qualifications of the students it admits. The very fact that modern universities are more open than highly selective universities is reason enough, in the eyes of some, to relegate those universities and their students to the second division.

As usual, the government has promised that the new higher technical qualifications will command the same respect as established pathways. We’ve seen again and again – with higher national qualifications, and foundation degrees – that government saying it doesn’t make it so.

The higher technical route must not become an educational dead end – if people holding higher technical qualifications at levels four and five find their choice of progression routes from there are limited in any way, then the credibility of those qualifications will quickly wither on the vine. There needs to be accommodation of the possibility that today’s level five higher technical student could be tomorrow’s four star researcher, or CEO of the next big tech innovator, as well as alignment to immediate industrial priorities.

And so, there’s some realpolitik around the issue to be considered – if higher technical is to be seen as credible, it’s going to need to be produced and distributed in interesting ways across the whole HE sector. That’s not to say that Oxbridge should be obliged to get into level four and five provision (though if the subject mix is right, why not?) But that in exploring what provision might be suitable in a region or industry, you ideally want universities with a range of different missions shaping the agenda.

Not because modern universities aren’t in many cases the best positioned to deliver higher technical – they absolutely are. But because if it’s not going to simply reinforce the ongoing and deeply conservative perception that modern universities or technical routes are mainly for “the other 50 per cent,” then the whole sector has to jump on board.

One response to “Modern universities – beware of the higher technical trap

  1. Higher technical qualifications already exist …HNDs etc and have always been highly regarded and popular with employers in specific sectors. But the curriculum is/was not designed by universities and often did not map easily alongside degree programmes.

    When the polys became universities back in 1992 most set about systematically cutting out their FE provision (now back as foundation or Year 0) and externally designed sub degree courses like HNDs (foundation degrees). This was about control of content and image (universities = degrees).

    The main barrier to higher technical now is that unless they can deliver £9250×3 what is the financial incentive to universities unless their degrees in the same fields are not recruiting? The sector already runs far too many courses that cannibalise demand.

    In the current market it is student course preferences that drive post 92 university finances not the whims of politicians or even the needs of the labour market.

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