Think-tank calls for the return of polytechnics

The Association of Colleges has questioned the conclusions of a report calling on the government to bring back polytechnics, abolished by the Conservatives in 1992.

The final report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, published by think-tank IPPR, suggests that large FE colleges, in which most students are on higher education courses, could be eligible for polytechnic status.

Association deputy chief executive Gill Clipson welcomed the report’s “recognition of the distinctive role colleges play in advanced and higher vocational study”.

But she added: “It is debatable as to whether the re-introduction of the title polytechnic for some larger colleges with degree-awarding powers will send out the desired signal about the importance of vocational study; this is a question not so much about an institution’s title but of the value placed upon the distinctive, specialist, high-quality provision already on offer.”

She said it would be up to colleges as autonomous bodies to make up their minds individually.

The commission’s chair and vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, Nigel Thrift, argued that “a different title would protect a distinctive role for higher vocational learning that was lost in 1992”.

“Polytechnic status would carve out a distinctive place in our tertiary education system for institutions that focus on providing higher level vocational qualifications,” he said.

“[It] would be a mark of vocational excellence that would send out wider signals about the importance of vocational learning . . . and would signal that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system.”

The report also recommended the introduction of new £5,000 fee-only degrees, focused in vocational learning, which would be offered to local students who would not be eligible for maintenance loans.

It also suggested a student premium of £1,000 for each student from a low participation area, or those previously eligible for free school meals.

Miss Clipson said: “The introduction of new £5,000 ‘fee-only’ degrees, focused on vocational learning and higher level apprenticeships aimed at local students, would be a welcome opportunity for colleges.”

She warned the number of places available should not be constrained as the qualifications would create the skills for economic growth.

“One of the recognised strengths of colleges delivering higher education is their ability to widen participation and engage older students with work or family commitments, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds or deprived areas, who may not otherwise be able to pursue degree level study.

“We therefore fully support the proposal for the introduction of a £1,000 student premium for those people who have previously been eligible for free school meals, or who are from areas with historically low levels of participation in higher education.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the report was “a useful contribution to the debate on how to maintain and improve the reputation of our world-class university sector”.

He added: “However, the alternative undergraduate funding models that are discussed would cost more for families, taxpayers and graduates while doing nothing to improve the student experience.”