Vice-chancellors launch higher technical education report

The vice-chancellors of Aston University and London South Bank University have launched a report that calls for government to change student and institution funding to support more higher technical education

The government should make the lifelong learning account, supported by the Augar review, wholly cashable to give learners greater discretion to use the funds flexibly to access higher technical education, two vice-chancellors have argued.

Prof Alec Cameron and Prof David Phoenix, vice-chancellors of Aston University and London South Bank University, respectively, launched their report today. They make recommendations about the future direction of higher technical education and its part in the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda’.

The vice-chancellors head what they define as Universities of Technology (UoT): two of several institutions, loosely defined as post-1992 institutions, notable for teaching and researching technical subjects. Cameron and Phoenix argue universities like LSBU and Aston must play a leading role in local economic and industrial strategies – but need more government support to do this.

As well as changes to the lifelong learning account, the report recommends extending the Apprenticeship Levy so employers can use it to sponsor employees through higher technical sub-degree Level 4 and 5 qualifications and increasing funding to support teaching for over 19-year-olds without a Level 2 qualification.

The vice-chancellors argue ministers should fund pilot programmes to support collaboration between higher and further education and ensure schools, colleges and universities are not “siloed” as a result of its response to the post-18 review of education and funding.

The report also claims ministers should steer more research funding towards research that is “quickly applicable to real life” because it is likely to boost the productivity of small- and medium-sized enterprises. It also encourages universities to create business schools that “support their local innovation ecosystem”.

The report comes as the government prepares its response to the post-18 review of education and funding, known as the Augar review, which is expected alongside the Treasury’s comprehensive spending review later this year. Phillip Augar was commissioned by Theresa May to find ways to boost the availability of technical and higher technical education in the UK. Prof Phoenix warned that ministers seemed to want to “emulate Germany, rather than looking at the potential that is already in the UK”.

The vice-chancellors hope ministers will address student and institution funding structures that they say undermine specialist technical education. The introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012 had contributed to a drop in these sorts of courses and mature learners, Prof Phoenix said. These new funding structures should facilitate the growth of short, part-time and distance courses to provide post-18 education for those who cannot opt for three-year residential degrees.

Universities of Technology are institutions that focus on vocational, technical and skills-based higher technical courses and have strong knowledge transfer partnerships and a strong civic identity, the vice-chancellors suggest. The report identifies a UoT as one that “chooses a narrower focus in some areas, in order to excel in others”. Prof Cameron said that the UK had a rich history of technical institutions but their identity had lessened when polytechnics became universities in the early 1990s. They had since “evolved in an undifferentiated and amorphous model”, he said, driven by government policies and league tables that privilege “Oxbridge universities”.

Government must actively support the UK’s Universities of Technology by funding the applied research that will help build their reputation and cut through the outdated snobbery about technical education
– Prof David Phoenix, London South Bank Universities

Both universities are already intricately involved in the sorts of provision Cameron and Phoenix champion.

In a first for the HE sector, LSBU merged with further education providers to create the LSBU Group that includes South Bank Colleges, South Bank Academies and South Bank Enterprises. Half of LSBU programmes are professionally accredited, and the university and its colleges currently educate over 2000 apprentices.

Aston is a partner of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Institute of Technology, one of 12 pioneering STEM institutions launched by the Department for Education (DfE) with £170m in funding. Each IoT is the result of collaboration between FE, HE and employers. They will specialise in delivering higher technical education (at Levels 4 and 5). A further 13 applications were lodged with the DfE last year, all vying for a portion of the additional £120 million IoT funding.

Aston is also the home of the Aston Centre for Growth, which seeks to support research and programmes that support the growth of SMEs.

Prof Phoenix said the government should fund UoTs to “build their reputation and cut through the outdated snobbery about technical education”.

He continued: “Today, the UK’s Universities of Technology are training the next generation of skilled workers, including scientists, engineers, public servants, medics and nurses. If the government wants to expand opportunity across the country, they must ensure that all learners have clear pathways into higher technical qualifications – and that Universities of Technology are adequately funded to deliver them.”

Prof Cameron spoke of a “missing middle” – level 4 and 5 education – which is the solution “to the UK’s productivity problem”. Nearly four in 10 students in HE currently study a technical subject, but this share should grow, the authors said.

“Technical education and applied research… have been underfunded and overlooked in the past and it is time to remedy this if we want every region to thrive,” Prof Cameron said. “We call on Government to reform the way funding works for higher technical skills and applied research to really unleash the potential of Universities of Technology.”

The shadow education secretary Kate Green pulled out of the report’s launch event with the vice-chancellors of London South Bank and Aston universities over concerns that both institutions plan to close degree courses.


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