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30 years on: what do polytechnics teach us about transcending the vocational/ academic divide in today’s higher education landscape?

  • 5 December 2022
  • By Katherine Emms

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. You can read all of Edge’s ‘Learning from the Past’ series here.

The current shortage of high-skilled professionals has again placed vocational education centre stage. Unfortunately, shortness of memory in government and policymaking circles has created a disconnect between past and present attempts at vocational education reform. To remedy this, the Edge Foundation has created a repository of past policy reviews. As discussion swirls around the best way to address the growing gap in higher-level skills, one policy area we can learn much from is that around polytechnics. The topic waws explored recently by Gareth Parry, Professor Emeritus at University of Sheffield for Edge Foundation’s Learning from the Past series.

Formed between 1969 and 1973, England’s polytechnics offered higher education courses in vocational areas. Created through mergers of colleges of technology, art, commerce and other specialist institutions, they offered full-time, sandwich and part-time courses. Although such courses seem commonplace by modern standards, at the time they were a fairly radical concept in higher education. And while few consider polytechnics beyond their demise in 1992, their lasting impact is complex.

Polytechnics – set-up and beginnings

The first 30 polytechnics were the result of two higher education policies launched by the Labour Government that came to power in 1964. These policies emerged from an ever-increasing demand for vocational, professional and industry-based expertise. The first – the ‘binary policy’ – aimed to create a two-sector higher education system in England and Wales, composed of the ‘autonomous’ and ‘public’ sectors. 

Since universities (the autonomous sector) couldn’t meet vocational skills demand, the second policy – the ‘polytechnic policy’ – was the means chosen to achieve the first. The new polytechnics would be under local authority control, accounting for the bulk of full-time vocational higher education.

Concentrating courses in a limited number of strong centres was a key driver of the polytechnic policy. It was justified on the grounds that polytechnics would sustain high vocational standards and ensure economic use of resources. Universities and polytechnics would be completely separate.

The effect of policy drift

On paper, and initially in practice, the boundaries between academic higher education and higher-level vocational qualifications created a clear dividing line. What we see today, however, is a result of how this line shifted. It began with financial constraints in the mid-1970s which led to greater central direction over polytechnics. In 1979, funds for advanced further education were capped. This cap, in part, led to the creation of a new national advisory body in 1982, which acted as an intermediary between central government and polytechnics. Its goal was to help polytechnics operate at lower unit costs and place greater emphasis on teaching.

Eventually, in 1988, the Education Reform Act removed polytechnics from local government control, sounding the death knell for the binary policy. By this point, polytechnics were institutions with strong national roles, equipped with their own central admissions service and were more or less self-sustaining. In essence, they had become universities in all but name. The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 finally eliminated the binary divide, giving polytechnics university status and handing them the power to award their own degrees.

Since this point, the pre- and post-1992 universities have been converging even more, for instance in the changing tenure of their leadership as discussed in HEPI’s recent Policy Note. There has also been a blurring of lines between the vocational and academic, which was once a distinct focus of the different types of institutions. In particular, since the turn of the 21st century, all universities have been encouraged to play a greater role in ensuring they develop their students’ employability, to ensure students are better equipped to enter the workplace and be successful once in a job. Recent debate around the role of higher education has shifted, arguing that all academic courses at universities, not just those which are vocationally focussed, should include ‘employability enhancing content’. Consequently, in the last decade we have seen the ‘traditional’ universities being much more likely to offer work-related and professional learning as a key element of their degrees. Edge’s 2020 research showed how this is happening at Cardiff University’s National Software Academy – which delivers undergraduate courses with employability at its core.

The legacy of polytechnics

Today, polytechnics are often remembered for their demise – being ‘subsumed’ by universities. What’s often forgotten, however, is that the shift went both ways. For instance, today’s universities – and not just former polytechnics – offer many of the features pioneered by polytechnics. Modular course structure, recruitment of non-traditional students, heightened focus on vocational relevance and applied research, and even teaching approaches, are all shaped by what we first saw in the polytechnic model.

Some argue that polytechnics evolved to offer higher education at lower quality, forcing universities to follow suit. Seen this way, the legacy of polytechnics is more complex. However, polytechnics also increased participation in higher education, particularly in traditionally underrepresented groups, which is certainly a positive.

What’s not in question is that the legacy of polytechnics is not nearly as straightforward as many presume.

What can we take from this?

As countries worldwide grapple with growing demand for higher-level vocational skills, many are reforming their higher education sectors. The UK is not alone in facing this challenge. However, the lack of distinction between what different institutions can offer can add confusion to the already complex landscape. Some organisations, like the Institute for Public Policy Research, suggest that reviving polytechnics could once again carve a distinctive place in our education system for higher-level vocational qualifications. 

Naturally, we should base future decisions on current needs, not on past challenges. We should also learn from the two most important achievements of polytechnics: their contributions to growing student numbers and greater student diversity, and their continuing commitment to comprehensiveness and course development.Their non-traditional student population demanded diversity in course design and pedagogy while also developing new fields of professional education and training. Leaning into this today would send a much-needed signal about the value of vocational learning – an important message if we want learners to see that traditional university degrees are not the only pathway to success. Rather than blindly rehashing old ideas, reviewing past policies can help us to avoid the same pitfalls and prepare as best we can for policy drift. Whatever future higher education policy looks like, at the very least let us start learning constructively from what has come before. 

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