The prime minister has tasked education secretary Kit Malthouse with drawing up plans for two new vocational colleges in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge.
Details of the new institutions, dubbed ‘Voxbridge’, are sparse but could be fleshed out as early as the spring, Malthouse told the Yorkshire Post during a visit to York College’s Institute of Technology on Wednesday.
But college leaders have slammed the idea as a headline-grabbing and tokenistic political measure that should be dropped. Instead, they want ministers to fund established colleges properly after over a decade of cuts.
The idea for ‘Voxbridge’ colleges comes just months after the government outlined plans for new “elite” academic sixth forms to become the Etons of the north in areas that have weak educational outcomes.
Prime minister Liz Truss made a pledge to open new ‘Voxbridge’ colleges during her leadership campaign over the summer.
The policy was first tabled by Jake Berry, the then-chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, who is now Conservative party chair.
In a letter outlining his “Northern agenda” to Truss in July, which the now prime minister signed up to, Berry called for “two brand new vocational institutions in the North of England which will be the national vocational equivalents of Oxford and Cambridge – with a high-skilled, economic development corridor between them.
“We want to celebrate excellence by creating the best dual-track education system in the world – putting academic and vocational education on an equal footing,” the policy paper added.
New types of further education institutions have been rolled out over the past decade despite calls for ministers to focus funding on existing colleges. These include Institutes of Technology, University Technical Colleges and National Colleges. The latter two have been plagued with recruitment and quality issues.
Malthouse said ‘Voxbridge’ colleges are an “incredibly exciting idea”.
“Having centres of excellence, as there is with universities, I think, is a really great idea, so we’ll be taking that forward in developing the policy over the months to come,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said if Truss was serious about strengthening the UK’s vocational offer “then she should properly fund and support the brilliant institutions that already exist”.
“The government’s track record on establishing new institutions to deliver is not a good one, with both specialist colleges and many UTCs not faring well,” he told FE Week. “They have failed where they were not part of the system and where their contribution was not part of a coherent skills offer locally. I fear the same would happen with new institutions now, however well-intentioned, and however well-funded.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, echoed Hughes’ comments.
“Given the enormous financial pressure on colleges and the public purse, we would suggest that any additional investment should be targeted at existing providers to benefit all students,” he said.
“Sixth form colleges are centres of excellence, and they do an extraordinary job of helping students of all abilities to successfully complete academic, applied, and technical courses in order to reach a range of destinations. New investment, rather than new providers, is the key to raising standards and boosting the status of vocational education.”
The Department for Education confirmed that new ‘Voxbridge’ colleges are in the works but stressed the plans are in their infancy.
A spokesperson said proposals like these will “help to boost the profile of vocational education and get more people into apprenticeships, T Levels, degree apprenticeships and other qualifications”.