Time to end ex-polytechnics’ second-class status, says Ken Clarke

Tory former minister who abolished binary divide says hierarchy should be on ‘educational quality’ only – and sector ‘still not properly accountable’

三月 17, 2022
Ken Clarke
Source: Alamy

There should be no hierarchies of status between the UK’s former polytechnics and older universities today, only hierarchies of “educational quality” between institutions, according to former education secretary Lord Clarke, 30 years on from his decision to abolish the binary divide.

That decision by a Conservative government to turn 34 polytechnics into universities in 1992 is still lamented by some, including Baroness Wolf, a member of the Augar review panel and skills adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit, who has previously criticised a supposed loss of higher education institutions “with close links to local labour markets”.

Lord Clarke, speaking to Times Higher Education as part of a feature on the present and future of the polytechnics, said that if there was any lingering snobbery against the former polytechnics, it would be “quite extraordinary”, particularly given the vocational roots of many Russell Group universities.

“We shouldn’t have these hierarchies,” said Lord Clarke, who was education secretary between 1990 and 1992, then home secretary, then chancellor. “The only hierarchies should be on the quality of the experience and, particularly, the educational quality of the service they give to their students.”

The peer, who introduced the Ofsted schools inspectorate in his time as secretary of state for education, continued: “I wish I had been at the department for longer…There was more to be done in higher education – it’s still not properly accountable.”

Universities “are just not accountable for the standards and the value for money they produce, there’s a huge disparity between the best and the worst”, he argued.

There should be competition between universities not just for student numbers, but on “quality as well”, along with “pressure on [institutions] to improve their performance”, he argued.

The creation of the Office for Students, which plans to regulate English universities on their graduate outcomes, including progression to “managerial or professional employment”, was a “step in the right direction”, said Lord Clarke.

His decision to end the binary divide had been driven, he said, by the need to end a situation in which “the polytechnics were suffering from the continuing British problem that any technical, engineering or occupational-based education was regarded as second-class, compared with traditional education at universities”.

He added of that decision: “It was successful…Some institutions [among] the former polytechnics have thrived on a great scale.”

Asked about arguments that England as a nation sends too many people to university, he said: “I think we might…Public attitudes lead to this concentration on A levels and universities as the only route for anybody of any competence at all.”

He continued: “Some right-wing critics of the number of students feel ‘you’re not making it as privileged as it used to be, it’s not as posh as it used to be to get a degree’…I reject that, ferociously.

“Those who say we’re getting a huge proportion of our young people to go for a very traditional academic route and not providing our society, our economy with people who ought to take a more modern route – based on some form of technical higher education – I agree with that, I think.”

Lord Clarke went on: “I made many mistakes in my political career, I don’t deny that. But…the question of giving polytechnics university status all those years ago: I haven’t the slightest regret. It was the obvious, common-sense thing to do.”




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Reader's comments (1)

Totally agree with removing the intellectual snobbery of applied degrees and treating those graduates as second class to those manufactured out of the redbrick universities. But the elephant in the room still remains grade inflation driven by Blair’s politics of getting 50% of school leavers attending university, many of whom contributed to devaluation of the degree. Many courses are not fit to be referred to as degrees (eg media studies). Many students end up disappointed and unable to get relevant jobs and become saddled with obscene debts that have created a new industry for leaches; that’s another Blair legacy! The old evening and part-time study at the local tech made enormous contributions to industry and evolving careers. Such people were considered an investment by the companies sponsoring them. The system created by Harold Wilson and contemporaneously referred to as the White Hot Technological Revolution of the 1950’s, worked well and should not have been dismantled by the likes of misconceived social engineers led by Blair’s Labour Government: I know because I and my generation were the successful products of the system!