That is the view of Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, and Sir Nigel Thrift, his counterpart at the University of Warwick, who argue in a new report that vocational education should not be seen as the “poor relation” of academia.
They say that leading universities should work with employers to develop apprenticeships linked to cutting-edge research which would drive economic growth in high-skilled industries such as aerospace, nuclear energy and automotive manufacturing.
According to the report published on 11 March, “The Future of Higher Vocational Education”, this would entail a rethinking of leading universities’ admissions criteria, to recognise the potential of students holding BTEC qualifications.
It would also necessitate a change in teaching methods, with an emphasis on lab-based teaching, mentoring, projects and work placements.
Such centres could be designated as Royal Technology Centres, to underline their status, the report says.
This vision would build on the success of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a collaboration with Boeing and Rolls-Royce, which has graduated its first cohort of 250 advanced apprentices.
These were employed and funded during their apprenticeship by industry sponsors, and are offered progression routes to undergraduate study as well as doctorates and MBAs.
At Warwick, the model is WMG, formerly Warwick Manufacturing Group, which has worked closely with Jaguar Land Rover.
Its apprentices can expect to be earning around £32,000 by the time they finish their course and can collect technical qualifications as well as Warwick degrees.
The report says this model of industry funding could be replicated across the sector but suggests differences in academic and vocational funding could be overcome by an approach such as a voucher system.
In addition, the Higher Education Funding Council for England should support higher vocational places within universities “to provide a premium for quality”, the report adds.
Sir Keith said that all the main political parties had spoken of the need to strengthen vocational education and to increase the number of apprenticeships, but that this has not been accompanied by clarity about the quality of these apprenticeships and how they link to industry.
Subjects taught in leading universities such as medicine, law and architecture can be classed as vocational, he added.
“British society needs a new way of approaching the relationship between the manufacturing world and the conceptual world,” Sir Keith told Times Higher Education. “The Germans know this, the Swiss know this, and the French know this, and we have got it wrong.”