This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook. Follow Mary on Twitter – @MaryCurnockCook.
There’s much for higher education watchers to take note of in Damian Hinds’ speech on 6 December. It starts to map out a more coherent view of technical education pathways to support the industrial strategy (and, by the way, notes that this will sub-divide into regional industrial strategies).
He talks about an education ‘hourglass’ with a bulge at the top full of well-educated people, often with degrees, in high skilled, high paid jobs. At the bottom of the hourglass, he says, is a large number of people who either never progressed beyond GCSEs or gained low level vocational qualifications, too often ending up in low-skilled, low wage jobs. Although it nods enthusiastically towards the success of the UK higher education system, the speech is essentially about changing the shape of the hourglass so that “it bulges out in the middle, with more skilled jobs for people doing high quality training when they finish school”.
Unable to ignore the siren call of parity of esteem arguments, and with a section about technical education being for “other people’s children”, Hinds slightly blurs his central argument which is that the economy needs many more people trained for mid-skilled jobs. T Levels, he tells us, will lead to work as a teaching assistant, a digital development technician, or a civil engineering technician. He goes on to say that progression might be from cook to chef, from bricklayer to construction site supervisor, or aircraft maintenance fitter to aircraft maintenance engineer, with higher technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 offering the rungs in the ladder. He reminds us that fewer sixth formers go on to higher apprenticeships or Level 4/5 qualifications than go to Oxbridge.
The Secretary of State is right that, currently, higher education is really the only credible post Level 3 study option with measurable employability and wage premiums, and it is laudable that the Government is trying to address this with more clearly defined sub-degree options for work-related and technical study. Adding in a high-quality Level 3 pathway (T Levels) is a prerequisite to success in this endeavour.
Along the way, he hints at tackling the over-supply of non-academic qualifications currently on offer and funded through colleges and school sixth forms – “there are going to be some tough decisions ahead as we think carefully about what we take away from the system as well as what we add”, he warns. BTECs beware, and admissions planners beware as well.
I would add that building serious technical education pathways post-16 might be difficult when the key stage 4 curriculum is highly focussed on the core academic subjects, with the EBacc largely mirroring the Russell Group’s facilitating subjects. There surely needs to be some underpinning pre-16 education in technical areas to shape and motivate pupils’ interests towards further technical education. And if T Levels duck the issues of literacy and numeracy (low levels of which tend to point students to current vocational routes post-16), the quality imperative for a successful, valid and popular technical route will be lost.
There is a clear message for higher education here. The Government wants to provide the necessary skills pipeline and to do so with fewer people going to university. They recognise that credible, high quality alternatives have to be available if they can pull this off. In an interview with the Sunday Times back in July 2017, Jo Johnson, then universities minister said: “The days of degree or bust are long gone.” He was echoing similar calls for apprenticeships to be seen as a serious alternative to degrees made by David Cameron, Nicky Morgan and Robert Halfon. Damian Hinds goes further, saying that some jobs are unnecessarily inflated to degree level, “some people are paying for a degree they might not need”, and adding “the message is simply you don’t have to do a degree”.
It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise if the Augar review rebalances the available funding between higher education and new technical routes and it is likely that some kind of cap on the number of higher education students is indeed on the table. The higher education sector will perhaps want to point out the danger that the university option might once again become, in the opposite sense to Damian Hinds’ meaning, the ‘other people’s children’ route. In a world where interdisciplinarity is more in demand than ever, it would be a crying shame if the democratisation of higher education that has grown so successfully over the past two decades were lost to an education system that bifurcates more dramatically at age 16.