Giving universities lead on vocational HE ‘could pivot post-92s’

Policy Exchange report from v-c on Augar panel calls for English universities, not further education colleges, to be responsible for Level 4 and 5 provision

November 5, 2020
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The government should make English universities, rather than further education colleges, fully responsible for higher level vocational qualifications, which would refocus post-92 institutions back towards their older role, according to a report by a vice-chancellor who was part of the Augar review.

The report on Level 4 and 5 provision, by Nottingham Trent University vice-chancellor Edward Peck, comes ahead of the government’s expected further education white paper and response to the Augar review.

Co-authored by Rich Pickford of NTU’s Nottingham Civic Exchange thinktank and NTU associate professor of regional policy and development Will Rossiter, the report is published by the right-wing Policy Exchange thinktank, which has close links with key education figures in government.

Policy Exchange polling, also included in the report, finds that 55 per cent of members of the public surveyed agreed that “the big expansion of university education has been good for the country”.

In September Boris Johnson pledged to create a Lifetime Skills Guarantee giving individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, which he said would end “the bias that propels young people into universities and away from technical education”. And the government has pledged to crack down on “low-quality” degree courses, an agenda seen as targeting some post-92 universities.

As the government prepares for a rebalancing of post-18 education, Professor Peck and his co-authors advise an approach that could achieve reform “without wholesale restructuring”.

Their report argues that making Level 4 and 5 provision “primarily the responsibility” of “recognised and respected” institutions with degree-awarding powers – which includes all universities, along with just a handful of further education colleges – would bring “economies of scale”, reputational benefits and better links with employers to help design courses.

It says that “if more students – and in particular the growing demographic of 18-year-old students – are going to choose level 4/5 courses rather than a full degree, they are much more likely to do so if they are still ‘going to university’”.

There is “no doubt” that further education colleges “need more money”, but this should be “focused in large part on giving them the wherewithal to make their unique contribution to the skills ladder at level 3 and below as effectively as possible”, it continues.

The report adds: “There is a golden opportunity here to use the expansion of funding for levels 4/5 to move the focus of a significant segment of the higher education sector back towards a broader offer that characterised them before they became universities whilst also bearing down on costs. In short, government should seek to pivot the post-92 ‘applied universities’ – and those created since – towards more technical and vocational courses rather than expand or continue FECs in an area in which they have very limited experience and expertise.”

Professor Peck’s NTU is itself a post-92 university. This approach “would not require these universities to stop delivering traditional degrees in a broad range of subjects or undertaking research; indeed it is important to their continued reputation that they do both”, the report says. “However, it would mean that universities would be deploying their considerable resources, organisational capacity, and employer links to the benefit of many of the 50 per cent who do not enrol for a full-time university degree at 18. This would be the next step in developing their role to drive social mobility.”

The report also says: “One of the problems that has emerged slowly since the creation of the last wave of universities in 1992 is the narrowing focus of all higher education institutions on the full-time three-year degree.”

It is “puzzling” that there has been no consistent focus on the relationships between further education colleges and universities, the report says, noting the merger between London South Bank University and a local further education college.

And the report holds out as a case study NTU’s work in the former industrial Nottinghamshire towns of Mansfield and Ashfield, where it has taken on provision of courses at Level 4 and above.

The government should fund NTU to carry out a pilot study of the best approach to the lifelong learning accounts in these towns, along with “three or four” other universities, the report recommends.

“The government should look to explore with universities the future fee models for level 4/5 provision in the light of potential efficiencies generated by enhanced blended learning and increased student numbers,” the report also recommends.

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Reader's comments (3)

This approach could prove useful provided that the risk of further damaging the reputation of post-92s due to a possible perception of downgrading. The balance between their current focus on level 6-8 HE provision and research and the provision of vocational education seems to be a delicate issue to be handled carefully, in my opinion.
The conversion of Poly's and Colleges of Higher Education has been as bad as the loss of Grammar schools forced to convert into Comprehensives, the Political handling of such sweeping changes never works well. So IF there's changes afoot EDUCATORS not politicians , nor VC's, need to be involved, or it'll turn into just another fuster cluck.
I used to teach in a polytechnic, leaving just before it became a university. I was extremely proud of the way we trained, young people on HNC or HND programmes, few of whom had good A levels (if any) and later accepted some on to our degree courses. It was heartening to see many achieving results far exceeding their own initial expectations. This NTU report seems to make a lot of sense, IMO, and providing, indeed, that NJF’s caution is borne in mind.