Nick Faith is the Director of WPI Strategy.
The Conservative Party is gearing up for a fight with the Higher Education establishment. The manifesto makes it clear that part of Theresa May’s pitch for a more meritocratic Britain is the creation of a world leading technical education system.
The architects of the Conservatives’ pitch for government lay the blame at successive governments for ignoring the non-academic route:
“For too long in this country, technical excellence has not been valued as highly as academic success.”
The difficulties with levelling the playing field lie in the form of funding and status. Firstly, there isn’t enough money to plug the gap between technical and academic qualifications. Secondly, the technical route is still seen as a second class option in tertiary education.
Overcoming the funding hurdle will be harder than a cart horse trying to clear Becher’s Brook at the Grand National. Further Education (FE) income has fallen significantly since 2010. Alison Wolf, one of the pre-eminent voices in the education world, says the following:
“The current situation is financially unsustainable. In post-19 education, we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher technician level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelor’s degrees and low-level vocational qualifications.
Conservative plans to launch a major review of funding across tertiary education should send a shiver down the spines of some universities. As a 2015 Policy Exchange paper highlighted, the top universities are sitting on “staggeringly high levels of discretionary reserves” at over £12billion.
Given universities also benefit from government grants for things such as widening participation, it would not be a surprise to see the next government shift funding from higher education institutions to the creation of new institutes of technology and a new national programme to attract top quality professionals to work in FE Colleges.
Technical students also struggle for parity of esteem when it comes to living costs. The current student loan system reinforces the stereotype that a non-academic route is viewed as a second-class education. A university student is entitled to a financially generous loan system for both tuition and maintenance. A student going to a Further Education college is entitled to partial government support and a poorly understood loan. Someone living in Newcastle wanting to attend a new institute of technology in, say, Bath would struggle to finance their cost of living unless the Government overhauls the loans system.
Policy Exchange recommends moving to one single, unified loan book and loan offer for students regardless of the post-secondary qualification undertaken and the institution attended. The author of that paper, Jonathan Simons, argues:
“From a student’s perspective, he or should would be able to consider all their options and prices knowing that the same system of loans would be available to them regardless of what institution they study at.”
Improving the funding and status of technical education will also be central to the government’s industrial strategy. Given the uncertainty over immigration policy, it is critical to the long-term ability of the UK to remain globally competitive that we are producing home grown talent.
A quarter of firms who need technicians qualified in science, technology, engineering or maths, are reporting difficulties recruiting. RICS calculates that eight per cent of the UK construction workforce comes from the EU and that if the UK loses access to the Single Market, over 175,000 jobs could be under threat. A radical overhaul of our technical education system is clearly required as the country begins negotiations to exit the EU.
Political commentators talk a great deal about defining ‘Mayism’. I would argue that rather than looking at some great intellectual philosophy, the Prime Minister and the people around her are driven by a passionate desire to create the foundations for a more meritocratic society which gives people from all backgrounds options to fulfil their potential.
Giving 16-year-olds a real choice when it comes to either benefiting from a high quality technical education or a world-class academic education is ‘Mayism’ in action. And if that requires taking on the higher education establishment to achieve a fair funding formula then good luck to her.