Votes for vocational education?

Through advanced apprenticeships, universities and industry can unite to manufacture a more sustainable future for the UK economy

keith_Burnett_100In the run up to the General Election, British political parties are vying to show their vision for economic growth, and their support for the development of the vocational skills which will support it. All agree there is a problem, bemoan the lack of status in technical education and pledge to introduce structural change. The Husbands Review of Vocational Education and Training, conducted as part of the Labour Party’s Policy Review, starkly outlines the extent of the UK’s weakness when it comes to apprenticeships and technical education.

This is a particular challenge for the UK. In most northern European economies, vocational education – especially in engineering – is viewed as a positive route to a respected career. In Germany or Switzerland, apprenticeships are level 3 qualifications that last between two and five years and include at least a day a week of off-the-job training, as well as significant on-the-job training.

By contrast, companies wishing to expand or invest in the UK from overseas repeatedly say the biggest limiting factor on their plans to expand or relocate is the availability of the right kind of skills. Hitachi, Toyota and Siemens all report skills barriers to inward investment, as the arrival of a multinational in a region runs the risk of simply stripping skills from the local supply chain.

Added to this, young people themselves, particularly those from areas of traditional low participation in higher education, are crying out for alternative routes into education and quality employment which does not also bring with it the prospect of debt.

Yet, in the race to claim numbers of apprentices created, the focus has been quantity not quality. In the UK, too many apprenticeships are offered without company sponsorship and at a lower level. The majority (57%) of the increase in the UK between 2009-10 and 2011-12 was in level 2 apprenticeships (with almost two-thirds of all apprenticeships set at that level), whilst 20% of all apprentices report receiving no training at all.  The paucity of high-quality vocational pathways in the UK has also been highlighted in SPERI research.

Legitimate fears about quality melded with an education system which in engineering, unlike in medicine or architecture, separates theory and application continue to be a barrier to change. Apprenticeships in the UK vary tremendously from highly-regarded experiences with companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Jaguar Land-Rover, to low-quality, short-term courses in manual skills without any meaningful guarantee of demand or employment. As a result, parents and young people are wary of apprenticeships and vocational education. The Independent summed up the challenge with its headline, ‘Everyone wants more apprentices, as long as their own children go to university instead’.

Addressing this concern is something that the current UK coalition government has also sought to do – see, for example, the announcement in early March on a series of new degree apprenticeships.  Yet, while there will undoubtedly be a degree of lip-service paid to the importance of apprenticeships during the election campaign, nothing short of a revolution is required. The reality is that no party has yet come up with a detailed plan for bringing one about.

There are, though, examples which offer proven models for change, and which actively unite the needs of the economy with the aspirations of young people. In a recent report jointly written with Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick (‘The Future of Higher Vocational Education’), we outline how the status quo can and must be challenged, and how political rhetoric can be made real.

In fact, the kind of elite advanced vocational education which inspired the US founders of MIT and the German Fraunhofer is already being developed in the UK. This University-based vocational education provides an advanced apprentice route with progression to degree level study and even MBAs and PhDs – all fully funded by industrial sponsors who gain the skills which they know are essential to their own commercial ambitions.

What has made this possible is the deep partnership between universities and companies at the nation’s research CATAPULT centres, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield or the Warwick Manufacturing Group. In both cases, cohorts of advanced apprentices are fully company sponsored and work within a cutting-edge university research setting already attuned to industrial need. Such an approach is deeply attractive to companies – many of which draw their own senior management from the advanced apprentices of the past. In Boeing UK, half of its leadership team began as apprentices who went on to higher education blended with industrial experience, including at CEO level, and in Rolls-Royce the figure is nearer to two-thirds. Sponsoring companies retain close involvement with their apprentices, help shape projects and celebrate success.

Vocational skills and business participation in them are part of an ecosystem which supports economic growth – separation of education and the economy into political silos doesn’t work. Current funding models are also too complex and differentiate between vocational education and higher education. This just reinforces a false choice which could be overcome by an approach, such as a voucher system, where employers can choose their training provider, as advocated by manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

Crucially, though, to mark a change in the old divides, elite universities working with the UK’s top companies should lead in the provision of a new ‘gold standard’ higher vocational education.  While existing high-quality provision of vocational education does take place in the further education and higher education sectors, we want instead to provide the kind of high-level technical education, linked to cutting-edge research, that only leading universities can offer. Such elite Royal Colleges of Technical Education with progression into degrees will help raise the esteem of vocational education at all levels.

In our view, the UK should be aiming for 40,000 higher apprentices annually.  Higher vocational places within universities should be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to provide a premium for quality. Through genuine partnership with industry, vocational education of this kind becomes truly research-led teaching, with innovation immediately translated into the curriculum. It is rich in teaching and research and offers a tutorial system reminiscent of the best of our elite institutions but based around the lab.

It also offers young people – those who are currently not taking advantage of higher education but have the talent to do so, as well as some who may be choosing options which do not deliver the sustainable employment they wish for – new routes into the world of universities. These routes come without the debt associated with fees, the one aspect of higher education policy that probably will feature prominently in the UK election campaign, albeit to the detriment of a genuine debate on the sector’s value and future.

The Labour Party 5 Point Pledge includes a commitment to a strong economy and ‘a country where the next generation can do better than the last’. Yet, without a meaningful commitment to the very highest quality skills which respond to the needs of those companies which will support a rebalanced UK economy, regional economic growth and increased exports, such promises are hollow.

Are apprenticeships doomed to be a second-class education? Not if we pursue fundamental reform to higher education which includes the highest quality vocational routes designed in partnership with our leading global companies. If we simply rebadge low-grade training and work experience as an apprenticeship, we do it a dis-service. Our young people deserve better. And our economy and country need nothing less.