When I was a sixth-former in the late 1980s, my school was keen that as many of us as possible should go on to university, and badgered us to complete our application forms well ahead of the deadline. But we were obliged to apply to polytechnics as well, via their separate application system. Why? Just in case our A levels went so disastrously that no university would take us.
This neatly sums up the sniffy British attitude towards the kind of technical education that – initially, at least – was the bread and butter of polytechnics. Those institutions may long since have rebranded themselves as universities, but the prejudice against technical education clearly remains. Hence, while ever more students have been ushered into universities, further education has suffered deep cuts.
Interestingly, the story is similar on the other side of the globe. In this week’s Times Higher Education, Peter Noonan notes that vocational and technical education in Australia has also withered on the vine while higher education has ballooned.
But there are signs in both countries that things are changing. Noonan perceives a dawning realisation in Australia that the balance has tipped too far and that the future of tertiary education must be considered holistically if the country is to prepare the workforce it needs.
Likewise in the UK. Last week’s Budget, for instance, committed £500 million to what was billed as a radical overhaul of technical education for 16- to 19-year-olds, including a new technical qualification, known as a T level, intended to enjoy parity of esteem with the more academically focused A levels.
All this, of course, feeds into the UK’s post‑Brexit industrial strategy, from which university research is also set to benefit financially (and which – also in THE this week – Philippe Froguel warns should not focus too closely on translational research).
But however much money the government throws at T levels and the new “institutes of technology” expected to offer them, the question remains how easy will it be to challenge the popular preference for the academic route – especially when the government is also reintroducing academically selective grammar schools on the highly contested grounds that this is central to boosting social mobility.
Perhaps one way to create greater parity of esteem would be for universities themselves to get more involved in technical education. Indeed, things are already happening. The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is training large numbers of apprentices who will go on to foundation and, eventually, full degrees. The institution’s vice-chancellor, Sir Keith Burnett, recently railed in THE against the idea that there are “two types of human beings: those who work with their hands and others who work with their minds”. And a report by Universities UK last week predicted a big rise in university apprenticeships in England.
London South Bank University is going even further, bringing a whole “family” of institutions under its umbrella. As its vice-chancellor, David Phoenix, describes in our opinion section, its aim is ultimately to have schools, a further education college and specialist technical, professional, adult and even special needs institutions. Such a set-up, Phoenix says, will allow students to “choose the level, style and aim of learning that best suits them at the time”, transferring between “technical, vocational and academic pathways, based on a parity of esteem between all those routes”.
Phoenix emphasises that this approach will not be for every institution. And, although several universities now enthusiastically run their own secondary schools, others reacted negatively when Theresa May suggested last September that they should be required to sponsor one as a condition of raising tuition fees, warning of mission drift.
But perhaps the case for their getting involved with post-16 education is stronger. Rightly or wrongly, Russell Group universities in particular have successfully established themselves in popular consciousness as the UK’s educational elite. If they were to lend the gravitas of their brands to the whole gamut of tertiary education in their areas, perhaps the perception of technical education as second class could finally be consigned to history.
And that could only be good for a country set to go it alone into a future of technological disruption and radically volatile labour markets, in which everyone agrees that lifelong learning will be crucial.