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Whatever Happened to the Polytechnics Part 2

February 28, 2018

Let’s move on to today’s concerns about technical education. (Part One is here).

As we move towards a new settlement for higher education, there is a overt sense that the previous settlement, finalised in 1992/93, misfired in abolishing the binary divide between Polytechnics and Universities as separate higher education institutions with distinct missions and modes of administration and funding.

In what way did it misfire? Well, there is a longing for institutions specialising in undergraduate professional, technical and industrial training – institutions that are more connected and responsive to industry and commerce – at a time when industrial strategy is no longer a dirty word and when Brexit threatens to make apparent to everybody that England /Britain is a de-developing nation. And it does not appear that the £170m set aside for new Institutes of Technology (or existing colleges rebadged as such) is going to be adequate to the challenge of

‘linking up other providers, including FE and sixth-form colleges, the national colleges and UTCs as part of a system of professional and technical routes from education into employment. higher level technical education – along with Level 4+ structure for technical education’[1]
January 2017 Green Paper, Building Our Industrial Strategy.

The average annual operating budget of a single university is £200m.

Policy-makers would like some established, biddable institutions to effect their policies. It’s worth repeating that the binary divide of universities and polytechnics was formalised in the 1960s precisely to have a public sector of HE institutions to complement the autonomous universities (with that ‘public’ cashed out in terms of reasonable social and democratic control).

Several policy papers and statements from the last few years have called for the return of polytechnic-style provision but they have focused on the vocational, professional feature: the Institute for Public Policy Research and Vince Cable, while in government, being the most prominent.[2] The IPPR even recommended giving large FE colleges degree awarding powers & allowing them to call themselves ‘Polytechnics’. Alison Wolf in her recent pamphlet for Education Policy Institute wrote:

“What is not so obvious is why the British government [in the early 90s] opted to unify the sector, and abolish distinctive tertiary institutions with a technical and applied mission. It is similarly puzzling that the current HE bill [then about to go back to the Commons for its third reading] adopts an approach whose primary result will be yet more small new institutions offering yet more Business qualifications. In fact, there is reason to doubt whether our ministers, or officials, have fully understood the results of their decisions.” [p. 30]

In May 2016, the House of Lords held a brief debate which featured contributions from Lord Lucas, Lord Baker and Baroness Morris (the last two also former Education Secretaries).[3] They backed a call for a network of ‘subregional polytechnics’ specialising in the teaching of qualifications at undergraduate level (degree level and below). These polytechnics would have a co-ordinating and embedding function, leading on links with employers and designed to sit above FE colleges in a federated structure. These would be vocational, technical and training institutions, pointedly – given the Conservative plans – these would not be technology-focused, but technical in the broadest sense (cf. Tlevels).

To quote Ken Baker:

“The polytechnics should prepare people for associate professional and technical jobs, but those should not be limited to the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. They should cover things such as catering and hospitality, digital skills, graphic design, business studies, logistics and others. We need a whole range of different subjects of that sort at a higher level of achievement than the FE colleges are offering at the moment.”

As we have seen, this is almost word-for-word what Crosland outlined in 1965 and 1967. The Minister in the Lords, Baroness Evans, who responded to the debate, rejected the call for polytechnics, but accepted the view ‘that at present we do not have the right pattern of institutions to teach high-level technical education programmes at the level we all want to see’.

For higher education, the government intends to let new market reforms address the problem – with the hope that high-profile businesses, like Google, like Dyson will arrive and at a larger scale than Dyson’s new Warwick collaboration. The problem is that the challenger institutions will be incentivised by access to the £9000 tuition fee loan and so will aim at full-time degrees – and if for-profit, then primarily in the areas that are cheaper to run (classroom and lecture-based courses).

Which brings me to some key points to add to what was called for in the Lords.

It’s not just that we need to address the fact that “England today is simply devoid of the network of specialised and dedicated higher vocational institutions that are so important a feature of many European countries.” [Wolf 2016, p. 35]. We also need to recognise that the incentives in the system militate against part-time and flexible provision, particularly technical sub-degree provision, and by doing so militate against lifelong learning and crucially, retraining.[4] I do not believe that England’s productivity problem is such a conundrum once you look at what has happened here in the last decade.

New Picture

Hefce, Key Facts 2016

New Picture (1)Universities UK, Patterns & Trends in UK HE (2016)

It is clear to everyone that part-time, subdegree undergraduate study has been hit by three key and mutually reinforcing issues: collapse in employer training budgets since 2008, the introduction of Equivalent and Lower Qualification restrictions in the same year and the effects on part-time fees of the switch to a fee-loan regime since 2012. The last two make part-time fees much too high – retrainees are mostly barred from accessing loans – and the first point exacerbates the difficulties. I don’t believe the solution here is more loans. A different form of provision is needed – funded not as the pro rata subordinate of full-time degree courses  – but in recognition of a different set of needs and requirements and thereby in large part through institutional grants.

What we have seen is the return in new form of the problem previously identified as ‘academic drift’: that universities shed alternative provision in favour of the full-time academic degree.

Polytechnics as institutions were meant to address issues of this nature by concentrating not just on technical and vocational courses, but by focusing on part-time and sub-degree undergraduate students. But by 1992, on the eve of university status, that academic drift was much in evidence at the Polytechnics – of their 450 000 students, more than two-thirds were full-time. Growth had also been in the social sciences and humanities (including education college mergers) and the percentage of students following engineering had declined from a high-point of 44% to 18%, science students were also at 17% in 1992.

Middlesex for example was attracting students from around the country – not just serving its locale – and had made moves towards something like a liberal arts curriculum with a broad foundation year. In the early 80s, Norman Tebbit famously asked why Middlesex Polytechnic employed 20 philosophy lecturers – more than when I studied there as a postgraduate 20 years later (when it was achieving top ratings in the RAE and REF).

By the late 1980s, the successful polytechnics had larger annual budgets than their controlling local authorities and were champing at the bit to be given more autonomy.

A further 20 years after the polytechnics had been incorporated into the unitary sector, Universities UK was pointing out that it was rational for universities to expand into the lucrative postgraduate and international markets at the expense of part-time provision, which was ‘riskier, less profitable, and more expensive to enter and deliver’. This has been exacerbated by the last round of funding reforms.

Along with the loss of sub-degree provision we might also note the loss of combined studies and innovative modular courses with marked out places like Oxford Polytechnic in the 1980s. While we have a government wanting another look at credit transfer (the cornerstone perhaps of a true consumer market reform), it seems unaware of the polytechnic experiments here in the 1970s and 80s, including a reciprocal arrangement between the Council for National Academic Awards (responsible for polytechnic degrees) and the separate Open University. (I should note here that the Open University – a specialist in part-time, distance learning provision has been hit hardest by the new fee-loan regime – losing £100m in HEFCE annually recurring teaching grant – and by the preceding ELQ policy –  of which more in a bit).

The loss of flexibility is a serious problem, but the OECD also points out that English HE may in fact be an expensive exercise in mis-investment – students are pushed into the wrong kind of tertiary level study, when better gains might be had from the provision that seems to be close to disappearing.

New Picture (2)OECD “Building Skills for All: a review of England”, January 2016, p.15.

I cannot here tonight address the bigger disputes in economic theory underlying these debates about education as investment. But they depend on rival views about how the degree works in labour markets: the nature of human capital investment versus having credentials that signal in particular ways. I will simply draw a close to this second part of the talk by underscoring the loss of diversity in the sector and the manner in which the fee-loan regime has pushed universities and students towards full-time academic degrees.

In the following part we will emphasise the high cost of our generalised boarding school model of HE provision (sending young adults around the country to study), which means that students away from home in London are likely to be lent £60 000 (£9k in fees, £11k in maintenance loans). This leads us to the moral imperative for part-time provision, which leads me to conclude that we have grave problems with our current funding settlement.

To Part Three.


[1] “For example, a person could study a level 3 (A-level equivalent) at a local college, before moving on to study a higher-level technical qualification at an Institute of Technology in a nearby city…. All Institutes of Technology would be expected to: specialise in technical disciplines (such as STEM) that are aligned to technical routes; offer high quality provision at levels 3, 4 and 5 ( i.e. the equivalent of A-level to just below degree); and have a local focus to deliver qualifications of value that meet the skills needs of local employers. ” (pp. 42-43)

[2] IPPR 2013 A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England.
Cable was speaking on occasion of Launch of new National Colleges specialising in particular sectors. 24 April 2014.

[3] House of Lords debate 05 May 2016

[4] Wolf 2016: since 1990s employers are spending less on training: “It is not clear why this is the case, although two factors may be both the huge number of graduates now entering the labour market, and the increasing number of immigrants, many of them with specific vocational skills. However, the trend is clear, and confirmed by a succession of different large-scale surveys.” [ibid. p. 13]


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