The divide between academic and technical education

The economic arguments for widening access to higher education are widely accepted. The UK is moving towards a skills crisis that will be exacerbated by Brexit. We are facing some of the worst productivity levels in the OECD, and we have acute shortages in many sectors, with a record number of advertised vacancies. The UK’s engineering industry alone will need another 1.8 million trained individuals by 2025. But we will only be able to plug these gaps if we focus on all learners, and not just those on academic courses.

The Social Mobility Commission’s most recent report notes that the funding and expertise ploughed into widening participation have resulted in more working class young people at university than ever before. But that comes with the large caveat that both student retention rates and graduate outcomes for the same group have scarcely improved in the last two decades.

What is less recognised is that many widening participation strategies are inadequate because they put too much emphasis on academic pathways and thus ignore the majority of learners. This year around 43% of young people will enter higher education having studied A-Levels or BTECs. While access issues remain for many disadvantaged students, those on an academic route benefit from a clear, simple pathway to level 4 (equivalent to an HNC) on to level 6 (Bachelors’ degree) and above. The same cannot be said for the rest of the school population.

Universities’ widening participation strategies have rarely accounted for those in further and vocational study. Faced with a complicated and fragmented system, only 2.4% of these learners navigate through FE colleges to higher education study at Level 4 or above, and consequently face careers which often have little chance of meaningful progression. The social impact of this failure is feeding into an ever more divided society, as indicated by the fault lines shown up in the recent general election and last year’s Brexit referendum.

My institution, London South Bank University, was founded 125 years ago to “promote industrial skill, general knowledge, health and wellbeing to young men and women belonging to the poorer classes of south east London”. We are now pioneering a bold new solution to local educational provision which could help meet this challenge. Through a series of mergers, we are creating a family of educational providers: a group of like-minded specialist educational providers sharing a common approach to educational delivery and linked through a formal group structure. Currently in addition to the university, this includes a technical college and an engineering academy. A tie-up with Lambeth College is also under discussion.

The family of educational providers seeks to address this in two ways – firstly by providing access back into education both through adult education courses and through an Institute of Professional and Technical Education which helps employers to upskill their staff. Secondly, it puts aside arbitrary age-based barriers, allowing students to learn what they need when they need it.

For example, if a student was particularly gifted at subjects such as design and computer science but struggled at maths, they probably wouldn’t fulfil their potential because they would be unable to get into a FE college or sixth form if they failed their maths GCSE at 16. In a learning family with shared educational objectives this learner could start their A-Levels while continuing to study for their maths GCSE, allowing them to take the exam when they were ready. If they made good progress they could even move on to taking foundation degree modules at the university.

The family approach represents LSBU’s response to the needs of our corner of south-east London. It is not prescriptive and will not be suitable for every local area. However, I would encourage all educational providers to engage critically with the ideas in our new paper Families of Learning: Co-Creating Local Solutions to Education System Failings [pdf]. Together we can explore whether they present opportunities to meaningfully widen participation, tackle the skills shortages and boost genuine social mobility.