Universities have been urged to “return to earth”. In a blog accompanying a Policy Exchange report on technical and vocational education, Jonathan Simons, the report’s co-author, argues that universities are defying political and economic gravity by enjoying funding that is out of this world.
One of Policy Exchange’s conclusions - that some £530 million should be taken from universities and reallocated to further education colleges - has already been challenged by others in higher education. But another flawed idea - that higher education and skills education are not a good fit - also needs to be addressed.
The aim of the report, to explore ideas for improving higher-level technical and professional education, is timely and welcome.
It is right to highlight the underfunding of the FE sector and cuts to the adult skills budget; and it is also right to re_emphasise the economic need to increase the supply of higher-level professional and technical skills.
But to suggest, as Policy Exchange does, that it is further education colleges which should take the lead in delivering much of these skills is a mistake.
The error is not only underplaying the important role universities must have if the UK is to address the skills gap successfully; it is also misguided to suggest that skills education belongs mainly in any one part of our education system.
That seriously risks perpetuating, even widening, the academic-vocational divide - a damaging attitude which has consistently held back UK educational policy and reform.
Leaving aside, here at least, the arguments around the relative funding of education sectors, the report is right to acknowledge the UK has a world leading higher education system, and that is precisely why universities can and should be at the heart of the drive to tackle the UK’s skills gap.
In March 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills named the University of Winchester as one of eight universities, including Aston, Exeter and Loughborough, to have developed degree apprenticeships in the digital industry.
Winchester’s degree apprenticeship programmes, launched this September, were designed with the Tech Partnership, a network of employers, recognised by government as industrial partners for the information economy.
Degree apprentices’ fees are paid by their employer and the government. Apprentices earn a salary while combining university studies and developing occupational skills in the work place and, if successful, will graduate with a full bachelor of science honours degree in digital and technology solutions.
Companies working with Winchester, and employing degree apprentices, range from huge IT multi-nationals, Fujitsu and CGI, to smaller firms such as the Wiltshire based Quicksilva, supplier of IT services to the health care industries.
Along with the digital industry, the government named degree apprenticeships for 12 other areas, including public relations, laboratory science and chartered surveying.
Each involves a degree as an integral part of the apprenticeship, importantly co-designed by universities and employers to make sure it covers the skills industry is looking for.
The Policy Exchange report claims “FE is the most suitable place for higher-level professional and technical education,” and that “a university will tend… towards academic drift”, so that “technical and professional training within a university risks, (in terms of course design, workforce qualifications, and in prestige) being overly focused on theory above practice”.
That isn’t a message which chimes with the scores of employers and industry bodies including Astra Zeneca, BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors listed by BIS as involved in and supporting the offer of degree apprenticeships in higher education.
Many universities, my own included, value working with FE partners, and Policy Exchange acknowledges universities can and do play an important role in the provision of professional and technical education at sub-degree level. It highlights there are good examples of universities working with FE colleges, businesses and their local area to stimulate high-level professional and technical expertise.
Yet it goes on to argue the four principles of effective work-based learning, as identified by the McLoughlin commission (a clear line of sight to work; teachers who have both occupational and pedagogical expertise and the time to develop working relationships with employers; and access to industry-standard facilities) were, all things being equal, more likely to be delivered in FE colleges.
Really? There are undoubtedly FE colleges which can and do rise to these challenges. But the university sector adds value here too, including many universities who specialise in areas such as the agricultural or creative industries, and who have a proud and well established reputation for close working with their partner industries and professions in teaching, research, knowledge exchange and applied research.
The fundamental idea underpinning this report - that FE is for skills and HE is for academia - is a damaging stereotype of both sectors which will do little to address the demand for high-level skills from learners and employers.
In short, the 21st century higher education sector is more diverse, outward facing and, yes, down to earth, than the authors of this report recognise.
Joy Carter is vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, chair of GuildHE and former chair of the University Vocational Awards Council