The blurred line between colleges and universities must disappear

12 Dec 2019, 15:45

Whoever is in power tomorrow will have to deliver on their FE funding commitments and manifesto promises, writes Vanessa Wilson. But all the parties have missed a key plank to building the skills sector’s true capability

In spite of positive promises from all sides, and whoever walks into Number 10 today, universities, colleges and independent providers will need to work hard and work together to keep technical skills on the agenda.

A commitment to increased investment in technical education has been one of University Alliance’s three, targeted general election demands. This is because combatting skills gaps will be key to maintaining the global pace of innovation post-Brexit and allowing our country to flourish.

We have therefore welcomed the many positive pledges throughout the campaign. All three main parties have promised a well-deserved funding boost for further education and reform of the apprenticeship levy. In addition, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have made commitments to promote flexible, lifelong learning.

However, a shiny new, headline-catching policy in a manifesto is one thing. Its implementation is quite another. Whoever takes office today, we will face a raft of new ministers and a domestic agenda hindered by Brexit at every turn. This poses a real danger that commitments to investment in technical education will be consigned to campaign catchphrases. With growing skills shortages and low productivity, the cost of this would be catastrophic.

The system is currently too fragmented

One of the key barriers to progress is a widespread misconception around what technical education means and how and by whom it is provided. The public, the media and, most worryingly, the government and policy makers hear “technical” or “vocational” and still conjure up images of factories, boiler suits and grease-stained rags. In fact, all lawyers, architects, paramedics, IT programmers and fashion designers have had a technical, vocational education. Similarly, those working in engineering and manufacturing will have a technical, as well as academic, understanding of their field.

In fact, the majority of university degrees could be considered “vocational” in that they prepare students for a particular job. Alliance universities specialise in these offerings. Whether it is budding journalists at Birmingham City University benefiting from their partnership with HuffPost, future police officers earning while they learn on the degree apprenticeship at UWE Bristol, or students at Coventry University gaining engineering experience in the ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’, Alliance Universities’ distinctive pedagogy supports the acquisition of applied knowledge and skills to meet the needs of industry and public services.

A failure to understand this nuance has led to a tendency to falsely divide the academic and technical elements of education, fuelling an “either/ or” narrative in which higher and further education are pitted against one another. Yet the two cannot and should not be separated.

The boundaries between FE and HE are increasingly blurred on both sides. FE colleges increasingly provide higher education at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Both universities and colleges offer a wide range of higher technical education at levels 4 and 5, as well as apprenticeship programmes, including degree apprenticeships. They frequently work in partnership, ensuring a seamless pathway of education and training from FE to HE and back that learners may access at different points in their lives.

This trend is rightly set to accelerate in the future but, with different funding rates for different providers and a lack of clarity in higher technical qualifications, the system is too fragmented to support it. We need the next government to support and invest in a more agile, responsive and flexible post-18 education system that further incentivises HE and FE to work together to deliver flexibility, choice and career pathways for learners of all ages.

From day one, our new government will be facing a vast array of new challenges. However, overlooking the threats posed by skills gaps would be a grave error. Investment in comprehensive technical education can unlock the UK’s reserves of productivity and innovation and we look forward to working closely with further education to help the government recognise and deliver this.

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