Tertiary Education

The news over the summer that the UK government is planning to re-vamp higher technical education along German lines – together with the muddle over A-level grades and the scrapping of the 50% university participation rate target – might lead us to believe that we are at the dawn of a new era of valuing skills on a par with academic qualifications. The signals that a move to rebalance the tertiary education landscape is coming have been clear: the Augur Review in 2019 advocated a shift of resources from Higher (HE) to Further Education (FE) and the election of the Johnson government in December by a largely non-university-educated demographic has further strengthened the impetus for change. 

At the Society for Total Education we welcome this shift in emphasis as we believe that our education system has long neglected the wider range of human capabilities that academic exams cannot assess. If there is truly to be an expansion of opportunity for young people to develop high-level technical skills to contribute to society and the economy this would go a long way to meeting our aims.

However, there are reasons to doubt whether the proposed shift will be any more successful than the multiple initiatives to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational education of the past 40 years. At the beginning of my teaching career in the 1980s we had Keith Joseph’s Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), which probably created more of a ‘splash’ than any of the attempts at reform of the 16 Secretaries of State for Education we’ve had since then. 

The problem is essentially cultural. TVEI was introduced at a time when the Thatcher government was systematically dismantling British manufacturing industry, whilst deregulating the City of London financial markets. The sight of skilled workers being laid off whilst Oxbridge-educated bankers made millions cannot have convinced the young people on TVEI schemes that the government really valued their skills on a par with classics, law or English literature. The decision to convert dozens of polytechnics and colleges into universities in 1992 further played into the British cultural snobbery that has valued the ‘professions’ over ‘trade’ since the 18thCentury. 

As has been noted by many observers, German society doesn’t have this social-class-related hangup, since its large high-quality manufacturing sector is dominated by family-owned firms which have consistently invested in training and development of a highly-paid, high-skill workforce over generations. At the same time that Britain has been ‘deregulating’ its economy, stripping out skilled technical careers at the expense of low-wage ‘Mc-jobs’ in the service sector and gig economy, Germany has continued to value its engineers and technical trades – whilst maintaining parity of esteem between polytechnics and universities – such that ‘German-built’ remains a hallmark of quality. Simply borrowing the German technical education policy without the associated culture of respect for manufacturing industry won’t work.

There are of course signs that British culture is shifting. Alongside the snobbery towards technical education we now have the ‘culture war’ between a Brexit-supporting anti-intellectual (‘we’ve all had enough of experts’) electorate and the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ represented by the higher education system. The current government, despite being largely Oxbridge-educated themselves, are no fans of the university sector, whom they regard as leftist and out of touch with the Daily Mail-reading ‘people’. 

One target of attack has been ‘poor-quality’ degrees representing low value for money which, if they exist at all (none have actually been named) are offered by low-tariff post-92 universities created by a previous Tory government. Yet, even faced with the prospect of online lectures and virtual freshers’ fairs, young people continue to vote with their feet; this September’s UK university undergraduate intake will be the largest in history. We might concede that the alternatives – a ‘gap year’ with no travel or unemployment – aren’t particularly attractive, yet it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the Government’s attempt to rebalance the tertiary education system towards FE. 

It will necessarily take some time to reverse the generation of underfunding of the ‘Cinderella’ FE sector – and a concerted challenge to class-based snobbery – to make it as attractive to young people as university. At the same time we need to unpick the hierarchy within our class-based HE sector, where students are urged to ‘trade-up’ during clearing, leading this year to ‘high-tariff providers’ bursting at the seams whilst many post-92s face financial ruin through under-recruitment. In reality the binary divide (between FE and HE) is something of a myth; many FE colleges offer degree courses whilst universities provide apprenticeships and vocational courses. 

We suffer from a profound ‘them and us’ mentality in Britain; the sooner we realise that we need university-educated ‘experts’ (Covid-19 has taught us that) as well as highly-paid technical staff in well-invested industries the better.