Graham Taylor explains why he thinks university technical colleges (UTCs) are failing to attract enough students.

FE Week has exposed numerous examples of recruitment difficulties for UTCs.

It was for example reported last month that 39 were open — but four were closing (or have closed) due to low student numbers.

Interest from parents and students is still disappointing — UTCs are only half full overall — even though more of them are planned for launch by 2017.

So why I hear you ask are they struggling?

The main thing in their favour is that they have a sexy name — FE colleges would love to add ‘university’ to our branding.

But basic demographics are a major problem for them. There are simply too many providers chasing too few 14-19 learners.

Putting UTCs up against new school sixth forms, studio schools and national colleges, when the overall school population is falling, was always going to be a risk.

UTCs are also struggling to demonstrate that they’re doing anything different to what’s already out there.

Lord Baker, the best-known UTC champion, says they support applied learning, blending vocational skills with academic learning. But we all do that. The FE sector has certainly had that covered for donkey’s years.

UTCs are also hampered because they’re basically one-trick ponies, tending to specialise in just one vocational area. FE college and private training providers cover what they do and more, which is leading to unnecessary replication of expensive resources and staff.

Then we ought to look at evidence of UTC quality, which is mixed. Average success rates in UTCs aren’t great – several have ‘financial notices of concern’ and high drop-out rates.

Another important consideration is this: why would young people want to leave their original schools at 14?

It usually only happens if the student or parent is extremely unhappy with a school — which is fortunately not the norm.

Some local schools pass on their so-called problem children to UTCs, in the hope that hands-on learning will improve their behaviour.

Yet colleges can help with this too — does anyone remember Increasing Flexibility from back in the 1990s?

By making GCSEs/Ebacc the norm, the senior government adviser Professor Alison Wolfe and the former education secretary Michael Gove have also effectively scuppered pre-16 so-called Mickey Mouse vocational qualifications.

Evidence of UTC quality is mixed

This made it even harder for UTCs to differentiate themselves from schools in the 14-to-16 market.

And post-16 they look like any FE college, without the wraparound life-support systems and curriculum choice.

Their business links may be good, but so are the FE sector’s. We have years of work-based and apprenticeship training experience under our belts. Perhaps we’re not so good at marketing this.

Finally, I suspect it’s just as hard for UTCs as it is for colleges and private trainers to get a look in at schools with their own sixth forms. Most school heads want to keep their pupils post-16, not always in the best interests of the learner.

So why does the government still want to plough on with the concept of UTCs?

Could it be that it and Ofsted have a downer on FE? Sir Michael Wilshaw, the current chief inspector, certainly has.

He of course caused outrage when he spoke about failing FE colleges and, along with skills minister Nick Boles and education secretary Nicky Morgan, is still looking towards UTCs becoming part of multi-academy trusts as a means of giving them a sustainable future.

I’m not saying that all UTCs are under threat. Of course, some are successful, and if they can get the taxpayer to cough up for the buildings and training, then good luck.

But I would say this to our ministers: if you really believe in localism and that local enterprise partnerships can help identify skills shortages, then why not put the opportunity to meet those needs out to competitive tender?

I’m sure colleges and private trainers can come up with effective and efficient proposals which avoid expensive and unnecessary spend on buildings but combine their specialist staff, kit and equipment to deliver.

Alternatively, let funds follow the learner, always the best way methinks.