A £170 million series of prestigious “Institutes of Technology” are to be developed to offer a “credible alternative” to the academic route of university for young people, the UK government has announced.
As part of prime minister Theresa May’s industrial strategy unveiled on 23 January, technical education will get a radical shake-up to “level the playing field” for those who do not go to university.
But questions have been raised about whether the money could be better spent strengthening ties between universities and existing technical colleges.
Ms May’s industrial strategy is designed to boost the country’s productivity and improve living standards by balancing out regional disparities in growth. The government believes that education and skills are one of the biggest factors behind variations in productivity across the UK.
The prime minister was launching a Green Paper on the strategy at a Cabinet meeting in the North West and was expected to say that it would be a “critical part” of the plan for post-Brexit Britain.
“Our action will help ensure young people develop the skills they need to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. That means boosting technical education and ensuring we extend the same opportunity and respect we give university graduates to those people who pursue technical routes,” she was set to say.
A senior government source reportedly said that Ms May thought it was "unwise to force less academic pupils into the straitjacket of university, leaving them drowning in debt for the sake of a poor degree – particularly when we have a chronic shortage of British plumbers and engineers”.
The new capital funding will be used to deliver higher-level technical education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM subjects, across the country. The new system will replace thousands of existing qualifications, many of which the government says are of a low quality.
The institutes will offer 15 core technical routes that will give learners the chance to gain the skills that are in demand by local employers and will be tailored to the needs of regional industries.
A new “Ucas-style way of searching and applying” for technical courses was also being explored by the government, with the idea that this will give students considering this type of learning clearer information and support about how to apply and “create genuine parity of aspiration”.
Chief executive of MillionPlus, Pam Tatlow, said that modern universities are “well placed to play a leading role” in the strategy but she had reservations.
"At a time of major reductions in [further education] and local authority funding, questions also have to be asked as to whether the £170m announced by the government would be better spent in promoting collaboration between universities and colleges which are already engaged in high-quality professional, technical and vocational education,” she said.
In addition to the revamp of technical education, the strategy outlines plans to use top university maths departments to expand the number of specialist mathematics free schools, such as those supported by the University of Exeter and King's College London. Provisions will also be made to boost the number of students graduating from universities with STEM degrees.
The Green Paper will list the areas of technology that could be supported by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
This £4.7 billion pot of new funding, announced in November last year, is earmarked for areas where the UK has research and development strengths and the potential to excel, which include smart energy technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence and 5G mobile network technology.