Through a series of reforms designed to strengthen the technical workforce, including the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, degree apprenticeships, T-levels and Institutes of Technology, the government is seeking to create a parity of esteem between vocational and academic educational routes.
A greater commitment to investing in technical skills is welcome. As the Industrial Strategy White Paper recognises, there is a shortage of technical skills, with significant unmet demand from employers for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in particular.
But how helpful is the distinction between “academic” and “vocational” – or technical – education?
Much of the rhetoric on this issue assumes that universities (and especially selective, research-intensive universities) deliver only academic courses, while vocational education is delivered through other means such as apprenticeships.
But universities are already delivering vocational education at scale, and often these courses can also be highly academic in nature.
Last week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published an analysis examining the extent to which degree courses are vocational. Vocational subjects are defined as those where a significant proportion of graduates enter a narrow set of occupations after six months, the assumption being that this is because graduates have been taught specific skills and knowledge in preparation for a specific occupation.
The analysis finds that about 20 per cent of all first-degree courses are either highly or fairly vocational but all subjects include vocational elements to some extent.
Unsurprisingly, subjects such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science are classified as highly vocational: 90 per cent of graduates of these courses enter professional employment in a small set of occupations within six months of graduation.
These courses are also undoubtedly highly academically demanding. Indeed, higher-tariff universities (where courses are likely to be academically demanding) tend to have a slightly higher proportion of vocationally focused courses than others, due in part to the fact that they have a high percentage of medicine graduates.
So, clearly a course can be both highly “academic” and highly “vocational”. As Hefce’s analysis notes, these characteristics are not mutually exclusive, so making a distinction between academic and vocational provision in policy terms may be problematic.
Another way of analysing the extent to which degree provision is vocationally focused, is to look at the number of courses that are accredited by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs).
Such courses effectively provide graduates with a “licence to practice” in their chosen profession, from accountancy and architecture, to engineering, law and teaching. A Russell Group analysis estimates that more than one-quarter of all first-degree courses at UK universities are accredited by PSRBs and for integrated master’s courses the figure is more like 40 per cent.
In the context of the government’s reforms and the forthcoming post-18 funding review, it will therefore be important to recognise the contribution that universities are already making to deliver technical and vocational skills.
The immense value for graduates and the UK’s economy and society provided by less vocational degree courses should also be recognised. Not only do such courses further students’ knowledge and understanding of the subject for its own sake, but they also equip graduates for successful and fulfilling careers.
A recent analysis commissioned by Pearson of future demand for skills found that broad-based knowledge areas such as English language, history, philosophy and administration and management are all associated strongly with occupations projected to see a rise in workforce share.
The analysis also predicted that, in 2030, employers will place even greater importance on higher-order cognitive skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.
These predictions suggest that we will need graduates trained not just to have the skills and expertise to succeed in one type of occupation, but to think critically, analyse and solve complex problems, and so have the capability to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market.
An environment in which students undertake their own research and inquiry – becoming researchers and independent thinkers in their own right – will continue to be crucial. Research-intensive learning environments support students to develop the personal and professional skills that are integral to graduate-level jobs, equipping them to be lifelong learners and to be creative and to innovate.
In the provision of research-intensive learning across a full range of disciplines, universities can therefore support the government to meet its objectives to develop the skills that we need for the future.
Sarah Stevens is head of policy at the Russell Group.