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Forward together in the next major wave of technical education policy

As the Conservative Party manifesto promises a shake-up of the technical education and skills landscape, Andy Westwood argues that universities will need to be fully on board with the changes to come.
This article is more than 6 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

“We live in a highly competitive world in which the accent is more and more on professional and technical expertise. We shall not survive in this world if we in Britain alone downgrade the non university professional and technical sector. No other country in the Western World does so…. This demand cannot be fully met by universities. It must be fully met if we are to progress as a nation in the modern technological world. In our view it therefore requires a separate sector with a separate tradition and outlook within the higher education system.”

If Theresa May took the idea of an energy price cap from Ed Miliband, she went much further back for her ideas on technical education. For these are not her words, but those of the Labour Education Secretary Tony Crosland, when launching Polytechnics in 1965, but could so easily have been replicated over fifty years later in her manifesto.

In the last year, commentators have been queueing up to call for a new emphasis on technical education. Vernon Bogdanor, David Goodhart, Miranda Green and Phil Collins, amongst others, have described how it can address the powerful combination of reducing immigration, a need for a better trained domestic workforce and tackling the ‘left behind’ agenda.

The right technic

The last of these are the towns and cities struggling economically and traditionally voting Labour but more recently Leave too. Places that Theresa May is spending a great deal of time in during her election campaign – Bolton, Dudley, Mansfield, Cornwall, Wolverhampton and for her manifesto launch, Halifax. But it’s also fair to say that the likes of Alison Wolf, Jonathan Simons, then of Policy Exchange and Lord Sainsbury have all been making similar calls for a rather longer time. And it’s now pretty clear that people in high places have been listening.

Of course there’s plenty of longstanding evidence too – weak productivity performance, skills shortages in key industries and a long-term failure to get this bit of the education system right. The UK’s technical education system is very weak by international standards. Only 10% of 20-45-year-olds hold technical education as their highest qualification, placing the UK 16th out of 20 OECD countries. By 2020, the UK is set to fall to 28th out of 32 OECD countries for intermediate (upper-secondary) skills. Comparatively, we have a small and underperforming technical sector, largely underfunded, hardly noticed and run in totally different ways to either the higher education or schools sectors that sit either side.

Throw in May’s still rather surprising support for an active state in her headline Industrial Strategy and her apparent distaste for Britain’s universities – ‘citizens of everywhere’ and distracted by international students – and you have the full recipe for her ambitions and announcements to boost technical education.

There are rather a lot of them. The repeated manifesto commitments to ‘T Levels’ and to apprenticeships comes with a promise to invest in FE colleges, providing world-class facilities and equipment and a new programme to attract teachers from industry. There are ideas for degree apprenticeships in teaching and nursing, and an expanded set of rules for the levy alongside the often floated UCAS-style portal. Then in a throwback to 1997 and the University for Industry, there is a promise to produce “the best programme of learning and training for people in work” (in the developed world no less) alongside new rights for lifelong learning in digital skills and to request time off for training.

“Major review” time

But by far the most significant is the pledge to create new Institutes of Technology and the plan for a major review of tertiary education funding:

“We will establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers.”

To do this, these new technical institutions will also “enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great”, including access to research funding, loans and grants. Just like the vision for polytechnics she in the 1960s, “they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought after skills to support the economy, developing their own local identity”. And just like Crosland and Wilson before her, May is convinced that either universities can’t achieve this on their own or that they currently meet a different purpose.

This long list of activities may have come as a bit of a surprise to FE officials in DfE who until recently were only planning to spend £170m on Institutes of Technology. It’s now going to have be considerably more and with new commitments to autonomy, research and devolution it’s also going to involve more collaboration with HE colleagues as well as with BEIS, local government and the Treasury.

They will take some work to get off the ground and will need serious thinking about where they will be built and who is to be involved. Expect significant lobbying on what constitutes ‘leading universities’ and ‘major cities’, though in both cases it would be wise for the government to adopt a flexible view.

There is already enough in the idea to know that for the institutes to thrive, they will need more than capital funding. Hence a broader root and branch assessment is needed to underpin their creation and the wider policy ambitions for technical education and work-based learning:

To ensure that further, technical and higher education institutions are treated fairly, we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country.

Any ‘major review’ of funding will be hard to limit to just the availability of student loans. There’s still a lot more money in the system, and if Team Theresa want to create a world class technical education system and get Institutes of Technology off the ground, then other funds, as well as regulation, policy and a host of largely new organisations, could easily come into the review’s scope. It’s slightly odd then that having just pushed through two wide ranging bills on higher education and further education, there is now a major review covering both on its way.

Just as the market falls out of political fashion, universities will be faced with an Act that strengthens it. But this wasn’t quite how we were expecting competition to work or how new providers would emerge. So while the PM doesn’t quite trust universities to deliver to her domestic agenda, she still needs their active support to usher in the new wave of technical institutions as well as to drive increased R&D.

Theresa May is clearly keen to refocus universities’ thinking and capacity toward local rather than international issues. With this manifesto, they will be helping to set up new ‘poly’ or ‘mono-technics’, delivering the industrial strategy and also making “their full contribution to their local community and economy sponsoring local schools and being creative about how they can open up opportunities for local people.” That’s a long list of ambitions but it does at least prove that however uneasy the relationship between the PM and universities, the list of mutual interests and dependencies is growing and not shrinking. If the next five years are going to be a success for either, then they are going to have to go ‘Forward, Together.’

2 responses to “Forward together in the next major wave of technical education policy

  1. Timely article and a reminder of what is at stake here, Andy. I particularly admire the way you’ve attempted to overlay order on a series of seemingly chaotic government statements. The whole area of technical education in the U.K. Is fraught with bad history. You cleverly dissect what will need to change if we are to achieve a step change. As someone who wants us to get this right, I hope your optimism wins out.

  2. Not only for UK students. To make it pay it will need international students so we will aim, rightly, to train all those who can benefit not just the ‘brightest and best’.

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