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What price the reform of technical education?

The further education sector is awash with change. The government continues at pace with the much-needed reforms of technical education and skills. In recent weeks we have had the announcement of the 16 successful stage 1 bidders for the £140m Institutes of Technology and the 52 T-level early adopters, a list which included a surprisingly large number of schools, 6th forms and faith schools alongside Further Education Colleges. The reforms are driving structural changes to the educational landscape.

The constant changes within FE over the last four decades, the lack of alignment between the outputs of the education and skills system and the needs of industry, go some way to explaining the UK’s poor productivity. In key sectors the skills system has not delivered for employers or learners. Brexit brings this skills deficit into even sharper focus. Britain enters the 4th industrial revolution with an FE system which is confused about its mission and ill prepared for the challenges which lay ahead.

Without being too pessimistic we start the reforms from a low base. True, participation rates in FE and HE are high, but we know that 2 in 5 graduates are doing jobs which do not require a degree and whilst we have record numbers of apprenticeships the majority of these are older workers, already employed and studying at level 2. In 2016 only 2.5% of apprenticeship starts were aged 16-18 and studying a STEM subject at level 3 or above. A pathetic figure which hardly suggests the UK is developing the next generation of technicians and engineers that it will need in the Post Brexit world. Traditionally people developed their higher-level skills in the evening, in our technical colleges and polytechnics. The marketisation of FE in the 1990’s saw the wholesale closure of these courses as Corporations and Universities chased the more lucrative full-time students, dazzled by a career in media and the creative arts. Nothing wrong with that, but it went hand in hand with the closure of engineering and construction departments, and the loss of the expert dual professionals who taught in them. Not surprisingly the number of part time students studying HE in FE has seen a catastrophic decline, a trend that the Level 4/5 Review is only now beginning to focus on.

The Government’s ambition is to create an education and skills system that is world class. To achieve this, it will have to reverse decades of decline and under investment in technical education. Its going to cost a lot of money and it is going to take time. Investment is needed in infrastructure and modern equipment; in a curriculum that focuses on the skills and knowledge needed for high paid work; and the people with the expertise, talent and commitment needed to be teaching professionals.

Institutes of Technology provide a good example of the scale of the challenge. The IoT prospectus sets out a vision for a network of up to 15 prestigious STEM based employer led institutes. IoTs will focus on higher level skills and there is even a 20% cap on Level 3 provision. The IoTs will deliver what industry wants and success will be determined by the quality of their teaching. The expectation is that by academic year 5 there will be at least 1,000 full time students.

In the context of IoTs I am struck by the plight of my former college, PROCAT, recently the subject of an FE Commissioner intervention. A Group Training Association established by employers nearly 50 years ago, in 2014 PROCAT incorporated as an FE College providing specialist STEM training for the construction and engineering sector. When I retired last year, PROCAT was the largest rail engineering apprenticeship provider in the UK and had over 1,000 apprentices, the majority 16-19 studying at least at level 3. The FE Commissioner cited the following factors leading to a recommendation of merger -  the turnover of the college was too low (£9m), more academic students were staying on in 6th forms, the buoyant employment market in the South East made it difficult to attract and retain expert teachers and trainers.

The turnover of an IoT is likely to be around £10m when fully operational, with 1,000 students on Level 4 and 5 programmes. These undergraduates will be taught by people with advanced technical skills and the full range of pedagogical skills. The same challenges as PROCAT faced.

Like all the technical reforms the ambition is clearly right, but £140m spent on buildings and equipment simply will not cut it. There must be a significant investment in recruiting, training and rewarding the FE workforce. In 2017 the average salary of an FE lecturer was £32,000. A senior lecturer in a University earns between £41,709 and £55,996. With all the job insecurity, constant change and lack of professional status why would a talented specialist engineer choose FE over HE?  If the reforms are going to be successful we need the answer to this important question.

Neil Bates

June 2018