David Hughes responds to vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University Edward Peck’s call for ‘applied universities’, not FE Colleges, to drive the country’s technical skills revolution

There’s a lot to like in Edward Peck’s essay for Policy Exchange – “Technical Breakthrough Delivering Britain’s higher-level skills” – but there are also a few arguments and conclusions I take issue with. I hope that the flaws don’t detract from the constructive and important overall thrust of the essay because we do need to make progress on growing Level 4 and 5 higher technical education. That growth will only come about if we can agree how to achieve it and the essay provides some useful proposals on the steps to do that.

The essay covers lots of familiar ground about the need for growth in Levels 4 and 5 which I think are well made by Peck and in other recent reports, so I won’t comment on them here. The author then proposes three challenges which need to be addressed in delivering that growth – based around demand (how students are supported financially), supply (how to make a coherent local offer) and focus (how the offer meets labour market needs). It’s a nice way of un-packing the challenges and reflects a lot of our thinking at AoC.

It also reflects emerging thinking from the government (take a look at the Prime Minister’s speech in September at Exeter College or the recent NAO report on FE funding), in the Commission on the College of the Future and amongst many thinktanks (EDSK, IPPR for instance). All of these, I am sure, would broadly agree with the recommendations to address the demand challenge, with college and university students being able to access the same funding for fees and maintenance. The PM’s announcement of a lifetime skills guarantee looks set to deliver that, with the flexibilities to support modular learning, flexibly over a lifetime. There’s a lot of detail to be ironed out, but steps are being taken in the right direction.

The third challenge of focus is also supported by sensible recommendations in the essay which again reflect and build on thinking and ideas from other reports, so I won’t comment on them here.

That leaves the gnarly issue of the supply challenge. The overall conclusion is once again spot-on, with the challenge of how to join things up in a local labour market to ensure that pathways for students are clear, employers can get what they need and investment is concentrated for maximum impact. I agree with the authors that “Opportunities for students, universities, colleges and employers are being missed through a lack of joined-up approaches to both policy and practice.” And that this results in a confusing landscape with duplication of effort and resources. So far so good. It’s in the next steps where I think erroneous statements are made which make it look like an unnecessary and partisan land-grab.

There are generalisations about colleges with throwaway dismissal of the quality of their offer and facilities and about their reputation which I simply do not recognise and for which no evidence is provided. There are also some false Aunt Sallies knocked down to make the case for universities to dominate the growth in level 4 and 5. For instance, the essay suggests that “a major argument for enabling FECs to take a much greater role in future level 4/5 provision appears to be that it will support their financial sustainability.” I’ve not seen that argument made anywhere. If it was we would not support it. The argument we do make is that colleges should be funded properly for what they do, that they are more widespread than universities, exist in all communities and are able to make a local offer everywhere which is vital for people and labour markets. But the authors don’t address those arguments. Probably because they are more difficult to knock down.

The case study of Nottingham Trent University working in Mansfield is a good one and shows one strong   approach to college – university collaboration which can work and will work in some places. But we know that for many or probably most other parts of the country, collaborations like that will not happen because the interests and priorities of the universities are very different. In places like Weston-super-Mare, Grimsby, Blackpool and others, the college is the only game in town and it delivers high quality, from great facilities with positive outcomes. Let’s not dismiss those case studies please, because for those places, the college simply needs equal access to the student finance and other investment that NTU has to be able to deliver what is needed.

The need for more higher technical education is strong, and the need for coherence of the offer is clear. We have always advocated a collaborative approach between colleges and universities, based on a level playing field for all. Whilst colleges need to go cap in hand to a university for awarding powers at levels 4 and 5, there will always be a power imbalance which is unhelpful and unnecessary. Whilst that does not always get in the way of progress, it often does and that needs to be changed in the white paper, to back up the Prime Minister’s promise “to transform the training and skills system, making it fit for the 21st century economy”.

The essay has some great proposals, but please let’s not get into a turf war about who ‘owns’ the higher technical education space. Not only is there room for colleges and universities, we all owe it to the communities we serve to make sure the pathways are clear for learners and employers know who can best help them. That requires local place-based collaboration between colleges and universities, working with employers and others. Not a fight to see who is strongest.