This report comes at an opportune moment. Not just educational policy, but the future of the country’s economy, is at a crossroads. The Government has just published its long-awaited Industrial Strategy white paper, setting out bold ambitions to “ensure that everyone can improve their skills throughout their lives” and putting the development of people at the heart of its plan for the economy. Enhancing social mobility remains at the heart of its programme.
At the same time, the most significant reforms of the higher education system in a generation are being implemented. The Office for Students will begin operation shortly, now with added responsibility for addressing the future skills needs of employers. New T level qualifications, currently in development, will start in 2020, sitting alongside A levels and BTECs as an alternative route for young people.
The decisions we make now will shape the landscape for the next decade and beyond. The capacity of universities to absorb and respond to a plethora of initiatives from Government around regulation, innovation, and skills is being sorely tested. In this context, there is a danger that the implications of reforms to vocational education will receive less attention than they deserve. This makes this report an important and timely contribution.
Vocational qualifications at Level 3 – especially BTECs – have played a major role in broadening access to higher education in recent years, particularly from underrepresented groups and low-participation regions. In my view BTECs complement A levels and, of course, many applicants combine both qualifications. BTEC courses develop knowledge and skills whilst applying these to real-world tasks, scenarios, and challenges reflecting the world of work. All students require a personalised programme of study and support whilst at university regardless of what and how they have studied previously. It is crucial that we do not adopt a deficit model when considering the requirements of BTEC students. At Nottingham Trent University, our student analytics software – Dashboard – is the tool that our tutors and students use to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.
In NTU’s 2017 autumn intake, 34% of our incoming undergraduates possess at least one BTEC. A quarter of our UK undergraduates come from households with a mean average income of £15,000 or less. We also recruit a proportion of BME students which is well above the sector average. There is significant crossover here. For example, those students who come from families without a history of higher education are more likely to have studied for at least one BTEC. These qualifications have become a significant route to social mobility in recent years. We must not undermine their appeal by changing their curricula or assessment methods without due regard to this fact.
Neither should we simply usurp them as the Government introduces T levels. We must guard against creating a rigid divide between ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ education at Level 3 where the latter does not provide a ladder into selective universities such as NTU. The proposed bridging arrangements are recognition of this problem, but they must be as comprehensible to young people as they are practical for providers. Universities must engage in the design and delivery of these new qualifications as the present report recommends.
The report also calls for more collaboration between every part of the education system and in this context I welcome the suggestion of a review of the funding of and incentives within post-16 education even if it does give busy universities one more thing to think about!
Our future economy needs the right blend of academic and technical skills. Degree courses must encompass both in ways that acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of all students, regardless of their background. If technical pathways are to have the rigour, prestige and progression which ministers, employers, and learners desire then they must open doors to degree and postgraduate study. Anything less will fail those learners, shackle our businesses, weaken our economy and thus make us all poorer.
This foreword has been extracted from a new report, Vocation, Vocation, Vocation, from the Social Market Foundation with University Alliance and Pearson. Read the full report here.