Far from being “elitist”, Lord Sainsbury’s recommendations give those who can’t get into elite universities a chance to compete, says Andy Forbes.

was incensed at Lord Sainsbury being branded “elitist” for his definition of technical education; he is right to set a high bar for quality education in the sector.

Far from being “elitist”, the Sainsbury Panel’s recommendations give the FE sector a golden opportunity to challenge the elitism of a system where the curriculum of Eton and Oxbridge is seen as the model for all to follow.

We are standing at a turning point in the fortunes of the English FE sector. More importantly, we are standing at a turning point in the strategy for economic prosperity and social mobility, which has been at the root of modern educational policy in the UK.

Most importantly of all, we are at a pivotal moment in which we have a chance to arrest the policies that inadvertently have condemned thousands of young people and adults, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, to an educational and qualification cul-de-sac. Far from improving their prospects of career advancement, the “widening participation” policies of the past 20 years threaten to trap students from hard-pressed families in a permanent limbo of low wages, insecure employment and chronic personal debt. Exactly the opposite of what most of us working in FE would hope for.

Technical education has been squeezed out by this rush towards honours degrees

All of us have been won over by the argument that in a modern economy where knowledge and expertise are the most valuable resource, the expansion of higher education is the right thing to do. And it certainly is – all the evidence is that an economy based on advanced technology requires a higher proportion of highly skilled people in the workforce if it is to be successful. But this does not mean it is right to focus only on expanding the number of students doing full honours degrees and throttle funding for all other high-level courses. And it doesn’t mean that it’s right to expand willy-nilly the numbers doing degrees of all kinds – with no regard for the exact type of skills or volume of skilled graduates the labour market actually requires.

Reckless expansion by universities of degree courses is producing a massive over-supply of graduates with the wrong sorts of degrees, who have little chance of finding a graduate job and who, thanks to the student loan system, have been saddled with an eye-watering level of debt. Those who are in this position tend to be those from poorer backgrounds, disproportionately from ethnic minority communities, and disproportionately female. Whether we like it or not, they haven’t gone to the top-brand universities and they haven’t done high-premium degrees in science, medicine, law or economics. Despite the BTECs and A-Levels they’ve battled to get, they simply can’t get in.

Technical education has been squeezed out by this headlong rush towards honours degrees. Yet it is exactly the right path for those people who don’t have the social and cultural networks – and often, the money – to get them into elite schools and universities, but nevertheless want to earn good wages and avoid bad debt. Technical education is the academic and vocational preparation of students for jobs involving applied science and modern technology – exactly what the modern economy desperately needs in abundance.

So, yes, keep pushing to get disadvantaged students into Russell Group universities doing prestigious degrees. But for those who don’t make it, the best alternative is not necessarily doing a degree at your friendly neighbourhood university. It’s doing an HNC, HND or degree apprenticeship, or at least it certainly should be.

Widening participation in universities does not in itself promote social mobility. What will do is the return of high quality further education, linked to high quality technical education.

Lord Sainsbury is right. Professor Alison Wolf is right. We in the FE sector should be clamouring for their alternative vision for social mobility to be implemented right away and for the FE colleges best placed to deliver it to be resourced at least as well as the universities have been.


Andy Forbes is principal and chief executive at the college of Haringey Enfield and North East London


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  1. James Harkness

    Technical qualifications should not be seen as the option for those who “don’t quite make it” to a top university as you say. We need to get away from this mentality where university is best and vocational or technical education is a second best option. Ironic when we’re talking about elitism really. Also the point about sainsbury seeming elitist, that was because he does not apparently value level 1 and 2 and also rejects whole sectors like retail and sport and recreation as not being ‘technical’ enough (even though he couldn’t actually define ‘technical’).