Has our technical education fallen into a ‘polytechnic’ sized hole?

Earlier this year I was able to contribute to the KPMG Australia report Reimagining Tertiary Education: From binary system to ecosystem. In doing so I was struck by many resonances between the situation in Australia and that in the UK, most particularly England.

One similarity in particular was the emergence in both countries of what could be called a ‘polytechnic (TAFE) sized hole’ in our tertiary education systems.

There are many reasons why this hole has opened up such as a drift to degrees and a shift towards research rankings and the growth in scale of our major education institutions.

However, I see positive signs that we’re now starting to forge a new path in the UK as we respond to economic and social pressures. Visiting Australia again at the moment I see these similarities reinforced and wonder if Australia will soon begin its journey to reimagine tertiary education.

A drift to degrees?

Following the 1992 Education Act, the former polytechnics and colleges of higher education in England were granted the opportunity to become universities, with the ability to confer their own degrees.

In the same way as described in the KPMG report, the former polytechnics in England may be seen to have been subject to mimetic drift toward a focus on full 3-4 year degrees, mostly delivered to students on a residential basis. That this was so is hardly surprising given the relative imbalance between funding rates for sub-degree and full degree programs and the greater stability inherent in the full degree ‘market’ and led to a move away from sub-degree education provision.

A resurgence in technical and professional education

A further pressure, also seen in Australia, was for new universities to be research-led, or at the very least to be research-involved. As in Australia, the need to climb research-dominated international league tables in order to support the recruitment of international students was a further factor encouraging a move away from a teaching focus. Another more arguable factor is the relative social status accorded in the UK to traditional academic subjects, over more applied and vocational areas of study.

There are early signs of a reversal in this direction of travel in England, not least with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which applies to all providers, irrespective of their status. This means that further education colleges, as the English TAFE equivalents, are judged on the same criteria as universities when they deliver higher education.

With the need to improve productivity and the greater variability in the wage premium deriving from a full bachelors’ degree, there is also a resurgence in interest in what is increasingly being termed ‘technical and professional education or TPET’ (as opposed to VET). The development of higher and degree apprenticeships with employers working in conjunction with universities and colleges, is one sign of a return to more directly employment-focused higher education – similar to polytechnics.

The importance of place

In terms of responding to placed-based needs, the distinction between being an institution that is ‘for a place and of a place’ is relevant. The former polytechnics in England were subject to a large measure of local authority oversight, albeit with quality assurance being exercised by a Council for National Academic Awards. With the move to university status, a greater degree of autonomy was accorded to the new universities. The shape of their overall curricula offer was no longer subject to local influence in the same way as pre-1992.

Whilst universities continue to be major players economically in their city or town, they are not for the people of that city or town; at most they respond to regional imperatives, but more often national and international demands.

If some universities seek to assume a more instrumental polytechnic type role, they will effectively need to accept some loss of autonomy, either voluntarily, or in order to access funding opportunities. Labour market intelligence will need to be a prime determinant of the curricula mix that they offer, staff profiles will need to change, and engagement with employers nationally and locally will need to be close and continuous in order ‘co-produce’ curriculum content.

The process of seeking such mission differentiation would not be easy, or welcome for many, if not most, universities in the UK and in Australia. If this is the case, it may be that further education colleges need to step into this role.

Public institutes in a post market era

If an ecosystem is to be created in Australia, we will need to think through how providers learn both to collaborate and compete to best serve the needs of students, communities, employers and the nation.

Martin is the Further Education Trust for Leadership Professor of Leadership in Further Education and Skills at University College London (Institute of Education), previously the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges. He is currently working with KPMG as a tertiary education subject matter expert.


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