New Cats may claw back success

October 4, 2002

Polytechnics are evidently still a topic of debate judging by two articles, one looking forward, the other looking back, in The THES (September 20).

Tony Tysome ("Colleges bid to become the new polys") looked forward to a new generation of polytechnics spawned by the further education sector.

John Pratt ("Status: more than just a name") looked back over the ten years since polytechnics became universities and considered the reputations, status and rankings they had achieved.

Pratt implied that there was no going back, not even for those that may not have arrived yet, whereas Tysome appeared to advocate some sort of return.

However, there is a third dimension to the debate about the role of polytechnics - the success of the former colleges of advanced technology (Cats). Cats came on the scene in the 1950s with such panache that by the late 1960s many had full university status. Several have been so successful that they have long since been in the upper quartile of universities in the full sense of the word. In The Times ranking, there is only one straggler from the 1960s, while others, such as Bath, Loughborough and Surrey, are riding high.

I have no wish to be critical or negative about the rapid conclusions reached in 1992 when the higher education system was transformed. That was before the reality of expansion generated in the 1990s hit home, and long before the push to the goal of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds participating in higher education.

But why not go back, take out a proverbial clean sheet and address the merits of a binary future to satisfy the demand (need), restore academic creditability (with business, employers and students) and recover parity with those nations that value their technological institutions equally with the university.

Surely it is not too late for the UK to rethink the failings, or at least the lack of success, of some former polytechnics and colleges compared with others. It could consider re-establishing the high-level technical institution to which the next generation of colleges aspire. These would provide tertiary education and skills training that clearly prosper and are venerated in France, Germany, South Africa and elsewhere.

Such reform would do much for a nation that is questioning the value of a second-division qualification from institutions that do not deserve to be in that lower division.

Richard Mawditt
Unesco chair in higher education management
University of Bath

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