For vocational holes, a bit of poly may be the right filler

MP and historian Tristram Hunt tells John Morgan about reviving lost skills and improving teaching

October 18, 2012

The "polytechnic brand" should be revived in higher education to recover skills lost to the UK economy when the polytechnics became universities, according to a Labour MP and academic.

Tristram Hunt, who still teaches history at Queen Mary, University of London on Monday mornings despite being MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, envisages sixth-form and further education colleges taking a greater role in teaching vocational skills in higher education.

Speaking to Times Higher Education during Labour's recent party conference in Manchester, he said the conversation about vocational education had "changed quite markedly" at secondary level as well as for students aged between 14 and 19 because of the drive to set up new university technical colleges.

"But if we want a successful manufacturing industry, if we're concerned about knowledge transfer, if we're concerned about high-tech development - we're not really having those conversations in terms of higher education," he said.

Dr Hunt said that he would like to see "colleges - sixth-form colleges and FE colleges - beginning to think about the polytechnic brand".

The MP, reportedly a friend of Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, added: "I certainly think if you look at the skills which have been lost ... in the conversion of polytechnics to universities - whether it's design courses, whether it's art courses, whether it's engineering courses, whether it's practical components of these areas as they transmogrified into universities - we're beginning to think as an economy that we've lost elements of that. Why not have a conversation about reviving that?"

Dr Hunt's constituency includes Staffordshire University, formerly North Staffordshire Polytechnic - but he said the institution was not offended by his argument.

"I have to say that North Staffs Polytechnic was very, very pre-eminent in terms of ceramics design, in terms of material technologies; a lot of that has been lost." However, he continued, "a lot has been gained as a modern university. I don't think they would want to revert to the polytechnic status, but I think they appreciate the argument - particularly for the cohort of students they are getting - about what skills a modern university can offer."

Teaching at Queen Mary is not Dr Hunt's only involvement in education. He also works with Keele University on how academic historians can help develop GCSE and A-level history teachers. He said: "In November we're going to hold a conference at Keele to help history teachers in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire ... The evidence is absolutely clear that if you inspire, develop and train teachers, they are better when it comes to dealing with their pupils."

Before becoming an MP in 2010, Dr Hunt was well established as a historian with a public profile, having presented two BBC television series, on the English Civil War and on Protestantism, and written books including a biography of Friedrich Engels.

During a recent skirmish in the House of Commons, he and a female colleague were described by Michael Gove, the education secretary, as "the last breeding pair of Blairites on the Labour back benches".

Why did he switch from academia? "It is that thing of not simply sitting in the British Library or the university library in Cambridge reading about it, but actually being involved with it," he said. "It's unfortunate at the moment that we (Labour) are unable to make political decisions which affect the life chances of people and improve things - but hopefully our time will come."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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