50 new universities and the return of polytechnics

46 new universities in the towns in England with a population of over 80,000 that don’t already have one, and the transformation of further education colleges into polytechnics - place-based vocational centres of excellence delivering up to and including degree-level apprenticeships.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

They are amongst the ideas in a fun new paper on education recovery from Tony Blair and former schools minister Andrew Adonis that Blair’s Institute for Global Change is submitting to the the Times’ Education Commission.

It’s a paper that’s surprisingly light on detailed analysis of current economic need, the post-Brexit context or even the impacts of the pandemic. But given the competition for long-term, strategic education-as investment policy on offer from the current government, it didn’t need much.

The first 17 of 23 pages of “Education, Education, Education” is pure revisionist reminiscence – a sort of rhetorical trip down memory lane from the mid-1990s to 2010 that both makes the case that in government Blair and Adonis made the case for education in a way previously rarely seen, and ignores or sidelines mis-steps like the failure to take on the papers and pushy parents over Mike Tomlinson’s proposed abolition of A levels in favour of an integrated vocational and academic diploma.

From the sector’s perspective, the 50 per cent target is defended robustly, along with the Adonis line on fees – that introducing them helped fund expansion while allowing extra state spending to go on schools. The architects of the 2010 changes would of course argue that their changes finished the 50 per cent job – although few Tories boast about it now.

The basic case is that investment and reform need to go hand in hand – and that while at times in government New Labour went for investment and forgot reform, their assertion is that since 2010 it’s been the other way around:

The coalition government took office with two very different big ideas – austerity, and an assertion of cultural divisions and elitism by initiating controversies about the school curriculum, the grading of exams, and free speech in universities.

That dig at culture wars over real vision appears a few times:

There were the deep cuts in the state education budget after 2010, and equally damaging has been the decision by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings – the driving forces behind education policy after 2010 – to launch a battle with what they called “the blob”, their derogatory term for the collective leadership of the state education system. In the current 2021 session of parliament the major piece of education legislation is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill: a reform in search of a problem since free speech is hardly a key issue on university campuses, least of all after a year when they have been virtually closed and still not open fully. It is a distraction from the obviously colossal job of educational reconstruction after Covid-19.

And while the launch of the Apprenticeship Levy got employer funding into the system in a way New Labour had never dared try, its implementation comes in for stinging criticism too:

The effect of the Levy has been the opposite of its launch publicity and stated intention. It has reduced the amount of apprenticeship training overall, and shifted the balance of the remainder towards higher level apprenticeships in the service and public sectors, increasingly concentrated geographically in the southeast of England. This may better reflect the revealed preferences of employers now that they have more “skin in the game”, in that they now contribute much more financially via the Levy. But it is arguably bad for social mobility and the long-term prospects of lower productivity sectors of the economy.

Where that gets them to is a call for an “Education 2030 Plan”, requiring a new government commitment to a long-term programme of investment and reform. As well as returning to rebuilding schools, the big call is for place-based leadership and investment and strategies to level-up, on the model of the London Challenge – partly because:

The absence of such place-based education strategies since 2010 is in our view a significant part of the reason why the “left behind” sentiment has taken such a strong hold of many of the less advantaged parts of the country in the past decade.

In the plan Further Education colleges would be focused on transforming the quality of apprenticeship learning and supply and wider vocational education, with more centres of excellence and stronger links with companies in key sectors vital to the locality and region of each college:

Even the title ‘general further education college’ begets low status and lack of focus. We would recommend consideration of a programme of promoting’ these general colleges to the status of ‘polytechnics’ – a title lost to the education system since the original generation of polytechnics became universities.

They accept that there needs to be pathways to careers and prosperity as strong for those who don’t go to university as for those who do – “the other 50% as they are sometimes called” – and this should be a key ambition for the next decade. But in marked contrast to current government rhetoric, which can never make up its mind whether it’s trying to do something for that other 50% or persuade some of the current 50% to do something else, here Blair and Adonis have their cake and eat it in the other direction:

It would be wrong, as many now suggest, to soft-peddle – let alone seek to reverse – the expansion of higher education, and universities should feature prominently in an Education 2030 Plan.

…and even (likely deliberately) invert the fashionable language of “value”, all on the basis of the economic payoff:

And we need to seek to expand further on the basis of courses which students perceive to be valuable, including degree level apprenticeships. High levels of university participation is one of the defining characteristics of advanced economies – just a 1.42% increase in university-educated graduates correlating to an extra $1,747 in GDP per capita”

Their case-in-point is Falmouth University – spun up from Falmouth School of Art in 2005 and now estimated to add £100m p.a. in Gross Added Value to the local economy:

It boasts a 96% employment rate and four times the number of self-employed graduates compared to UK average – graduates who can remain in Cornwall after finishing their studies.

And that success story is where that “every big town without one” thing then comes from:

The “Falmouth model” should be extended across the UK… this has a key part to play in the levelling-up agenda and a place-based approach to educational regeneration which has been too neglected in the past. Universities can and do serve as hubs of local development, contributing to town centre regeneration, creating local jobs, partnering with schools, local government, and the NHS.

The point is that for all the “levelling up” talk, the current government can’t seem to help talking down what it doesn’t like to get there. But would it all work?

In some ways the point isn’t so much whether the economic analysis is right or whether the prescription is right. Nor does it matter especially that a paper describing the need for an “Education 2030 Plan” somehow manages to avoid even noticing the significant demographic pressures that are about to be placed on the tertiary education system generally and the higher education system specifically. It’s also fairly silent on the ways in which changes that would need to be implemented on the supply side to make stuff like this work – given that alternative (sub degree, technical) types of provision probably need to be specifically incentivised.

It’s just refreshing to read something with a bit of vision for a change – and one of the few things I’ve read in ages that seems to genuinely believe in the links between education and economic prosperity without getting bogged down in narrow instrumentalism. I just can’t work out if it’s got a differentiating eye on the future or whether the apparent attractiveness of its tone and framing really means I’m stuck in the past.

One response to “50 new universities and the return of polytechnics

  1. Great piece by Jim. There are some really strong points being made here. Hard to believe that they will see any daylight. Shame.

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