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Straw men or straws in the wind – what future for ‘alternative’ HE routes?

Alternative and vocational HE are in the news again, but - as Bill Esmond - explains - these modes of delivery have a long and fascinating history.
This article is more than 4 years old

Bill Esmond is Associate Professor for Learning and Employment at the University of Derby.

The party conference season arrived with ‘alternative’ higher education announcements swirling round like autumn leaves. Justine Greening had canvassed the idea of a ‘vocational’ route into teaching, particularly for STEM subjects. Then Jeremy Hunt announced a fast-track route into nursing, with a two-year degree apprenticeship. The tes reported that Sir Andrew Carter (who led the 2015 review on initial teacher training) was calling for ‘school-led’ teaching degrees. Then we had the announcement of 27 new funded apprenticeship routes. Sure enough, these turned out to include routes into school teaching.

To a wonk with a refined palate, all of this savours of the moment’s flavours. Higher education fees are again among the hottest of political potatoes. There is plenty of fuel for debate with various measures of how universities provide ‘value for money’ (TEF, REF, LEO, NSS and now KEF – enough league tables to compile a league of league-tables). With ‘experts’ still under attack and Brexit (whatever it means) looming, ‘practical’ routes into higher education are surely the must-have consumer good and policy commodity.

But are this month’s announcements straws in the wind of a genuinely new type of higher education, or straw men to help win the latest political argument?


Many higher education scholars are likely to suck their teeth and mutter about ‘isomorphism’, ‘convergence’ or ‘academic drift’. You can theorise it from several perspectives but the outcome is that new institutions often end up looking suspiciously like the old ones.

In England successive attempts to create new HE providers with exciting new missions have ended with them shedding their local and professional/technical/specialist skin, or cloaking it heavily in academic robes and regalia. Some 1956 ‘Colleges of Advanced Technology’ now find themselves close to the top of the league tables. The post-92 universities had already begun to close their part-time, sub-bachelor courses even before they became polytechnics; now they are in many ways the ‘standard’ universities. And the ‘alternatives’ that didn’t take on this form didn’t get far. Earlier ‘national colleges’ made little headway: the National College for Rubber Technology, for example, is now part of London Met’s polymer centre.

‘Alternative routes’ have certainly been around for a long time. Non-degree routes to become a lecturer at a further education college are already taught, often alongside postgraduate programmes, by over thirty universities and hundreds of colleges. These have also been legal routes to teaching in schools since 2012: check out Statutory Instrument No. 431 (Regulation 13b) if you don’t believe it. But they tend to be niche provision. Not only have higher-level courses been taught in colleges for over a century, they seem to have recruited rather fewer people since policymakers started taking more interest, especially after the 1997 Dearing Report.

Slow progress

And here’s the rub, alternative routes have made painfully slow progress in the intervening twenty years. The market measures introduced since 2010 haven’t helped much either. Despite claims to the contrary, English college HE numbers are actually dropping according to HESA (check out table 1b). The biggest drop is among numbers of (more lucrative) full-time students, falling continually from 2013/14 to 2015/16. Years after colleges were invited to apply for degree-awarding powers, only half a dozen have taken this step successfully.

One explanation is that if you introduce a market for credentials, supported by mechanisms for student choice, you get market behaviour. And so, most consumers are driven towards the most desirable product if they can afford it, and the best imitation if they can’t.

So, most evidence seems to support more cautious scholars against more excitable policy wonks.

News headlines and ministers have their own reasons to over-emphasise the novelty of policy announcements. Hunt’s nursing and Greening’s teaching routes will involve degree apprenticeships, rather than non-degree entry into these professions. Carter was quoted as suggesting that ‘a successful teaching school’ might be empowered to award something ‘in conjunction with conventional universities’.

The rise of private HE

But are more radical outcomes possible? Alongside higher education in colleges whose main purpose is secondary education, policymakers are now pushing it into private companies whose main purposes are books or vacuum cleaners. And the most viable alternative to university HE may not be college HE (associated with widening participation), but the middle-class colonisation of degree apprenticeships, or the University of Dyson. Informed consumers who are drawn to bargains, like those middle-class shoppers at Lidl, may see a two-year degree as a quicker return. A recent CMI survey indicates that middle-class parents were far better-informed about degree apprenticeships than their less privileged peers. Could employer brands extend their attraction to privileged HE ‘consumers’, a little like the way builders value De Walt work-wear and shades alongside their power-tools? Dyson and Rolls Royce are certainly ‘aspirational’ employer brands.

Government agencies and sympathetic commentators seem to hope so. As hurricane Ophelia helped the leaves fall even more quickly, a report on the long-term fall in short-cycle HE was met with confident predictions that degree apprenticeships would reverse this, and excited anticipation of new routes, notwithstanding warnings that ‘higher technical education’ would also produce new conflicts of responsibility.

So, what if a non-degree route into nursing or school teaching really took hold? Michael Shattock identified the movement of teacher-training into higher education as a crucial moment in the expansion of universities since the 1960s. What if policymakers managed to get it, or nursing, out of universities again? That might also tally with some of the current rhetoric about ‘value for money’.

Some universities see all non-university HE as a dreadful threat; others, working in partnership with colleges, sometimes regard them as juniors with worrying potential to misbehave. An alternative view is that universities could adopt a more enabling and less regulatory approach of genuine partnership, to mutual benefit. But that’s an issue for another discussion.

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