Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Universities can be the engine room of the technical education revolution

  • 16 May 2022
  • By Helen Marshall

On Thursday 9 June 2022, HEPI is hosting its annual conference, ‘Challenges for the future? The student experience, good governance and institutional autonomy’. Register here.

This blog was written by Professor Helen Marshall, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford.

I recently supported the launch of a new report looking at higher technical education. The Future of Higher Technical Education in England: Expanding Opportunity for All has been published by ResPublica on behalf of the Lifelong Education Commission of which I’m proud the University of Salford is a member. 

Since our foundation as the Royal Technical Institute of Salford in 1896, we have always had a practical, vocational and technical focus. Whether you want to become a podiatrist, a nurse, a broadcast journalist or cyber security analyst, technical skills are critical to a successful career and that’s what we offer our students here at Salford. 

We know that the Government wants to turbocharge the take up of technical qualifications. Ministers are right to have this focus. Our report finds that since 2014, the number of people studying to sub-degree level – Levels 4 and 5 – has declined by 25 per cent. 

The average age of those taking qualifications at this level is 30 years old, so if take up is declining it is going to have an impact on lifelong learning. 

The Lifelong Education Commission report outlines four barriers to greater participation in higher technical education:

  1. A lack of good quality information and a poor understanding of the benefits of higher technical education.
  2. A relatively low level of prestige associated with technical education – for both learners and employers – compared to a three-year undergraduate degree.
  3. The varied needs of different learner cohorts, for instance those already in the workplace versus younger school and college leavers.
  4. The absence of a holistic and coherent funding system that makes studying for a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as straightforward and attractive as studying for a bachelor’s degree.

The latter is a question for government, although I know the higher education sector will have strong views on this, but the first two are where I would like to look at how universities can, and should, do more. 

We already dedicate significant amounts of time working with schools and colleges in our areas to provide impartial advice and guidance about pathways into higher education – this includes all routes, such as sub-degree, apprenticeships and degrees. 

Last year at Salford, we engaged more than 2,500 students with our outreach work, and we are currently working with partners towards opening a dedicated outreach hub in Salford amongst the most deprived neighbourhoods of our city. That is a huge reach that can be transformational for the young people with whom our team comes into contact. 

Universities need to be committed to being outward-facing and demand-led. That is our approach at Salford. But we also need the Government to work in partnership with us to promote the different pathways that people of all ages can take to further their careers – a collaborative and substantial marketing and public relations campaign to promote higher technical education would be most welcome.

Prestige will then follow. Take a look at apprenticeships. Once learners, employers and, critically, parents, supporters and school careers advisors gain a better understanding of the benefits of higher technical education the esteem of higher technical education will increase. 

And the benefits will ultimately be driven by the quality of training and the outcomes associated with new higher technical qualifications. Quality and parity for higher technical education can only be fully realised with universities playing their part in the system. We know that the English higher education system is the envy of the world and any higher-level skills system that fails to capitalise on this will not deliver the gains that the government hopes. 

These are the skills that further education is perfectly placed to provide but we have historically not always made the best use of it. Unlike many of our OECD peers, this country has not always shown further education the esteem it deserves, with too many people – and too many employers – wrongly believing that studying for a degree at university is the only worthwhile marker of success. Although our universities are world-class, it is not the only choice: in many cases, a college course or apprenticeship can offer better outcomes.

Gavin Williamson, then Secretary of State for Education, Skills for Jobs White Paper, January 2021

Former Prime Minister and higher education champion Tony Blair made a famous pledge of getting 50 per cent of all young people into higher education and is now calling for this target to be 70 per cent by 2040.

While the more university-sceptic elements of the media responded with dismay to this suggestion, the original target of 50 per cent and the proposed target includes all forms of higher education – bachelor’s and master’s degrees, higher and degree apprenticeships and, of course, higher technical qualifications. 

We can argue about the exact split and, clearly, at present there is an imbalance between the three-year degree route and the other more technical pathways. 

However, we will not boost our economy by reducing the number of people going into higher education; what we need is a more diverse offer that suits learners of all ages and at all stages of their careers. 

And boosting higher technical education is key to this, and universities, if they embrace the challenge, can be the engine room of this revolution. 

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *