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Report: Use ‘applied universities’, not Further Education Colleges, to drive technical skills revolution

Universities, rather than Further Education Colleges, should be made central to the technical skills revolution, according to a Policy Exchange essay by Edward Peck, Vice- Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University (lead author).

Tech breakthrough
“Applied universities” – mostly former polytechnics – could re-orientate to offer more technical and vocational courses

The report argues that a “golden opportunity” exists to use increased funding for levels 4/5 – skilled trades and technician skills – to pivot existing universities away from providing some lower quality academic degrees towards a “broader offer” for students who do not enrol for a full-time university degree aged 18.

He says that “applied universities” – mostly former polytechnics – could re-orientate to offer more technical and vocational courses while also bearing down on costs, as they did before 1992, instead of Further Education Colleges expanding in an area “in which they have very limited experience and expertise”.

Policy Exchange also reveals new polling.

  • We asked respondents to what extent they agreed or disagreed that the big expansion of university education has been good for the country. The results show a country almost split down the middle. Just over half (55%) of respondents agreed overall with respondents more likely to somewhat agree (36%) than strongly agree (19%).
  • While around three quarters accept that teaching should require degree level study, just less than half believe that is true of nursing and 24 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively for police officer and prison officer.
  • We asked our graduates who currently work, if they feel their degree was necessary for the job they are in now (when we say degree, we asked them to think about the academic aspect of the course itself). Over half (58%) agreed that it was necessary, with the ABs segment agreeing more so. However, 42% claimed it wasn’t necessary either not at all or that they rarely use learnings in their current job which rose to 46% among graduates from the year 2011 or before.

Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, and lead author of the Policy Exchange essay, writes:

“My proposal would not require these universities to stop delivering traditional degrees in a broad range of subjects or undertaking research; indeed, it is important to their continued reputation that they do both. However, it would mean that universities would be deploying their considerable resources, organisational capacity, and employer links to the benefit of many of the 50% that do not enrol for a full-time university degree at 18. This would be the next step in developing their mission to drive social mobility.”

…This would leave FECs to focus on the considerable problems that beset education in this country at levels 3 and below.”

David Goodhart, Head of Demography at Policy Exchange and author of the book Head, Hand, Heart, writes in an introduction:

“There was a time when the economy and the public services were crying out for more school leavers to march on into cognitively demanding academic higher education. The knowledge economy needed more knowledge workers and the number of public service professionals was leaping ahead. That time is now past…

“A Government that has made such a big play of reinventing the FE sector is unlikely to fully accept the Peck plan and will probably opt for a more mixed economy between FE and HE in the delivery of level 4/5. But the Peck plan is a welcome contribution and will be an essential reference point in the current debate.”

Key recommendations in Edward Peck’s essay:

  • The Government should recognise the reputational and practical benefits of universities taking a significant role in most localities in the provision of levels 4/5 technical and vocational education;
  • The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should initiate local reviews of the future provision of levels 4/5 by Further Education Colleges without Degree Awarding Powers;
  • The Government should review the DfE restructuring fund to enable it to support universities facing financial challenges in pivoting towards providing higher level technical skills;
  • The Government should look to explore with universities the future fee models for level 4/5 provision in the light of potential efficiencies generated by increased student numbers.
Published on 5 November 2020
  • Category: Press office