Universities of Technology are key to the levelling-up agenda

There's an unassuming network of Universities of Technology across England. Dave Phoenix and Alec Cameron want the government to unlock its potential

Alec Cameron is the vice chancellor and chief executive of Aston University


Professor Dave Phoenix is the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

Universities of Technology are key to the levelling-up agenda

A favourite pastime of Education Secretaries in England – stretching back as far as the end of the Victorian era – has been promising to deliver a system of technical education to rival Germany’s.

From the foundation of the polytechnic institutions in the 1900s to their expansion in the 1950s and ‘60s alongside new Colleges of Advanced Technology, these attempts have left us with dozens of institutions that were originally founded with technical education, and sometimes applied research, as their core focus.

It is a frequent assertion that technical education is no longer available in England. However, the vast majority of these technical educational institutions have continued to deliver on their original missions – educating highly skilled technicians; collaborating with business to unlock innovation in new products and services; and building management and leadership skills and capacity through their business schools – to be truly, albeit quietly, Universities of Technology.

What has undeniably happened to many of these institutions (including our own – Aston University and London South Bank University), however, is that national funding structures and reputational measures have caused them to broaden their offer, fuelling a homogenisation of higher education. This creates a missed opportunity for true diversity in the sector that would encourage institutions to have a narrower focus in some areas, in order to truly excel in others.

The chronic underfunding of STEM subjects creates significant challenges for Universities of Technology to maintain delivery of technical courses. It disincentivises providers to expand student numbers on existing technical courses or to introduce new ones. The predominance of funding for blue skies research has similarly discouraged them from doing even more of the vital applied research which turns innovation and knowledge into enterprise. The structure of student funding around the three-year residential degree has caused alternative routes including sub-degree Level 4 and 5 courses and those designed around part-time and mature learners to wither.

However, as the UK deals with the fallout of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe now is the right time to address these long-standing issues.

The Government, through its Skills for Jobs White Paper (and potentially the response to the Augar Review when it comes) has indicated a willingness to help address the missing middle of Level 4 and 5 in our skills system. Its plan for a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will enable learners to use their student loan entitlement in smaller chunks and to step on and off the educational ladder at levels of attainment of their choosing. They are also addressing the longstanding under-investment in technical education through a doubling of the teaching grant for STEM-based subjects.

The levelling-up agenda, combined with the increase of spending on R&D to 2.4% also – and perhaps most importantly – provides an opportunity to greatly increase support for the missing middle within R&D – Applied Research. While blue skies research at large research intensives can lead to fundamental breakthroughs in knowledge, these findings and these institutions are rarely accessible to SMEs, which make up 99% of UK businesses and are move evenly spread across regions and sectors. One example of Applied Research would be LSBU academics working with a consortium of 16 SMEs in association with Transport for London to develop a low carbon smart energy grid which will deliver low carbon heat, mobility and power to an estimated 33,000 residents and 70 businesses in Islington. Another would be the Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Aston University and Aurrigo to develop a machine vision solution to improve the operational safety and performance of autonomous vehicles.

With the proper support there is a huge amount of untapped economic potential in Universities of Technology to greatly expand this work and drive local innovation, economic growth and job creation, in turn reducing regional and local inequality.

While the filling-in of these missing middles is important, so too is their joining up – a bringing together of skills and research in the context of place. And our new report, Truly Modern Technical Education, released this afternoon, argues that Universities of Technology such as LSBU and Aston University are the ideal locations for that joining-up (and filling-in) to take place.

Levelling-up by creating new wealth and boosting productivity can only happen with the support of institutions that can apply knowledge and innovation through both research and teaching in the context of their localities. Such institutions exist up and down the country. If the Government truly wants to build-back better, then rather than coming up with yet another new way to emulate Germany, it should look closer to home and unleash the potential of its existing Universities of Technology.

Sign up details for the virtual launch of Truly Modern Technical Education, taking place at 3pm on 10th May, can be found here.

4 responses to “Universities of Technology are key to the levelling-up agenda

    1. Rightly so. The culling has already started and unless there is widespread resistance to this ‘vision’, colleagues in the Social Sciences and Humanities at these institutions – and likely many others hoping to jump on the band wagon – will find themselves on the chopping block soon.

  1. I attended and although I’m not convinced by elements of it – I think the central thesis that every University trying to be everything to everyone is a dead-end for most is correct.

    1. I agree, not every university has to offer every degree. However, ‘disinvesting’ in well-established or newly created programmes on the premise that they don’t ‘fit’ the new agenda (but not explaining why and not following a proper process of consultation with those impacted) is not good management.

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