The proposals in the Post-16 Skills Plan (July 2016) sought to revitalise higher technical education by creating a new binary system, perhaps responding to the popular sentiment that laments the loss of the polytechnics. On the one side of the line, there would be Higher Education (HE) delivered in the main by Universities and regulated by the Office for Students (OfS). On the other side of the line would be Higher Technical and Professional Education (HTPE) delivered by Colleges or new Institutes of Technology (IoT) and regulated by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). In HE, autonomous institutions would design their own programmes as now; in HTPE institutions would only be funded to deliver programmes centrally developed to rules set by IfATE. HE could include provision at levels 4 and 5 but only if they form part of a programme leading to a full degree. HTPE would, it seems, be essentially at sub-degree level.
The proposals raised a number of questions. How, for example, would it raise the status of technical education, to clearly signal from the outset that it is in the second division? Why would colleges opt to deliver the centrally planned programmes of IfATE when new rules give them easier access to degree awarding powers that let them design their own? Why would we want two systems of regulation in HE when one would do?
It appears that the Conservative Party had listened to these concerns. In a section of the manifesto that has received surprisingly little attention, there is another apparent U-turn. Whereas the Industrial Strategy (February 2017) promised that Institutes of Technology would be based mainly around existing FE colleges the manifesto (May 2017) talked instead of “new institutes …. linked to leading universities in every major city “. “They will provide courses at degree level and above” ( no mention of below). Furthermore “They will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great” including access to research funding, royal charter status and “regius professorships” (a genuine honour but so arcane I had to look it up). This seems to position IoTs firmly in the HE sector.
Why such confusion and why does it matter? The answer seems to be that technical education (like apprenticeships) commands near universal support despite there being no clear agreement on what it is. For some, it would appear, technical education refers to certain subjects, often conflated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – this lobby wants to promote the study of technical disciplines at every level, and one way to do so they argue is raising its status. Another group, however, seems to see technical education as primarily about training technicians – those qualified at levels 4 and 5 whether the subject is ‘technical’ or not (hence accounting technicians). They also have a point – in England, there is a smaller proportion of the workforce with these intermediate qualifications than in most other comparable countries. There is also a third group who seem to define technical education in terms of an approach to teaching and learning; their arguments about the educational benefits of a ‘clear line of sight to work’ have merit, but the term ‘vocational’ would be more suitable than ‘technical.’
Looked at this way the Conservative Manifesto lined up with the first group; those who want little boys and girls to aspire to be rocket scientists rather than rock stars. The Conservative Industrial Strategy lined up with the second, focussing on filling a perceived gap in the workforce. But what of the Conservative Post-16 Skills Plan & the Sainsbury report which was supposed to have sorted this out. They can’t be about technical subjects since they include areas like care and business studies; they can’t be about technician level training since their focus is largely on developing ‘T’ levels at level 3; and they can’t be about vocational training since they ignore whole sectors (e.g. retail) and levels (1 and 2).
‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t help anyone, and taking a similar approach to defining technical education promises similar confusion. Until we are clear what we mean by technical education we won’t be able to decide whether IoTs are HEIs, who the new ‘T’ levels are for, or how either of them ought to be promoted.