Vocational Higher Education

The crude oppositional approach to debates over vocational education and training and academic education has been a long and largely unproductive one in the UK. Many reports and government publications over the decades have advocated the recognition of the equal value of vocational education and training both within the Further and Higher Education sectors. Successive governments have talked about bringing a greater occupational focus into degree programmes but with little lasting effect.
Periodically during their terms of office successive governments appear to rediscover the importance of vocational education particularly at the higher education level and then attempt to create a number of initiatives to raise the profile of this critically important matter within the education and training landscape. The introduction of foundation degrees, graduate apprenticeships, half baked attempts to emphasise the importance of work based learning, the introduction of the so-called employability agenda and personal and social skills into degree programmes have been a few recent examples. Personal and social skills have been long been advocated by employers.
One effective approach to improving the awareness of the work place has been the placement of students into employment during their degree programmes and a number of models have been tried including sandwich courses (thin and thick) and work shadowing. Sadly sandwich programmes have declined significantly since the 1960s. These programmes provided students with real work placements of varying durations. In addition some universities and employers have developed internships but again these, particularly in the current recession, have been curtailed but with an increased tendency for the employers to require payment from the students for the opportunity. Programmes of work experience/placement add value to a student’s education and better prepare them for work. Research has shown that students who have been on such programmes gain higher classifications in their degrees, obtain employment more quickly than those students who do not undertake work experience. However too often students want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible because of the current student loan regime and the majority of universities have been reluctant to operate the work placement programmes because of added cost and administration burdens. The former polytechnics are often the exception and compared with the older universities have continued the programmes, many working with the CGLI Senior Awards that recognise the work placement. Overall the HE sector does not fully recognise the need or value in vocationalising degree programmes. 
A Bit of History
It might be of value to refresh our memories with a little history of higher education vocational awards (for more detail see the history of technical education on this website). Ever since the Great Exhibition (1851) and the Paris Exhibition (1867) it became clear that Britain was losing its supremacy in manufacturing and began its long period of relative decline in regard to international competitiveness and productivity with other countries. Innumerable Royal Commissions and other reports stressed and highlighted the urgent need to improve education and training at all levels of the educational system particularly of technical and vocational programmes at the higher levels. A number of changes to the HE system have been attempted over the past few decades in order to respond to the increasing challenges from international competitors. For example in 1956 a number of institutions were designated or created to become technological and vocational in character within the HE sector. Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) were established focusing on higher levels of work and awarded Diplomas in Technology. Following the Robbins Report these ten institutions were designated university status and allowed to award degrees. In 1967 Anthony Crossland, in one of two seminal speeches, criticised universities for what he described as their lack of response to society’s needs and indicating that greater responsiveness would only come from institutions which were ‘under more direct social control’. Thus Polytechnics were created and were seen by central government as being different from universities in terms of the type of degrees awarded, the balance between teaching and research, as well as the comprehensive nature of the student population. Polytechnics were eventually became universities in 1991/2 a move criticised by a number of commentators.    
At the time of their inception many of these institutions developed innovative vocational degree programmes with strong and effective links with employers. Often they included provision of sandwich placements with employers. These programmes were seen as offering realistic experiences in the workplace and were greatly valued by both students and employers. Sadly, following the decline of large parts of the manufacturing base of the UK, particularly with large employers, sandwich programmes decreased. In addition problems with student, institutional and employer finances contributed to this decline. The introduction of student loans accelerated the decline and the current proposed changes in university student funding will further exacerbate the demise of work experience programmes. A few HE institutions maintained their offer of vocationally focused programmes with work placement (mainly the former Polytechnics) but overall academic drift continued – a disease that has blighted the education system in England for centuries – reflecting the fundamental and historical hostility to the more vocationally and technically focused subjects, (with certain exceptions like accountancy, law and medicine which often carry the title vocational). In addition students often encouraged by parents opt for the more supposedly academic subjects that are perceived as offering greater security and better paid salaries. Also the funding methodologies have encouraged universities to offer provision that is popular and as a result to reduce low recruiting programmes in such subjects as engineering, construction/built environment , manufacturing and the physical sciences. This reflected a similar trend in Further Education Colleges where the funding regimes created the ‘dash for cash’ or ‘bums on seats’ approach and brought about the downsizing, closure or merging of key technical and vocational departments and faculties in colleges and universities. This brief and partial history highlights that the debate is still alive with little evidence of a long-term solution. The government response to the current recession is to propose massive cuts proposed in colleges (25%) and radical changes to student funding in HE with fees to increase possibly two or three fold. This will further decimate the technical and vocational provision just at the time the UK has to fundamentally rethink its future industrial and commercial place in the global economy and when these must surely be the subjects that could allow a successful reconfiguration. Employers still argue strongly that the majority of their graduate recruits lack experience and qualifications, which ‘gel’ with their requirements and that the recruits are not work ready. Employers have long expressed concerns about the quality of the graduates and are frustrated with university products. Many state that the universities are out of touch with the needs of business and operate in isolation from the world of work. Too often graduates have little or no understanding of the business and commercial worlds. The widely held view of employers is that there is a real gap/disconnect between the academic and business worlds – each seems to operate in separate boxes – they see the universities’ view as academic needs first followed by business needs. Many cite international practices e.g. China, Germany and US where the universities work very much more closely and effectively with employers. Employers also feel that academic staff are often not up to date with current technical and business practices and techniques. Employers quite rightly want to recruit ‘work ready’ graduates who possess real experience and understand more fully the needs of the workplace. The wider employability skills like better communication skills, dependability, integrity, Importance of working to deadlines, problem solving, reliability and team working/collaboration skills are often cited. Increasingly employers place a premium on such skills. Employers want to see business knowledge and enterprise skills. The real danger at present in the UK with the recession and the government’s austerity measures is that more poor-quality and low- skills jobs will increase and that the hoped for renaissance will not happen. Instead a weak, impoverished economy will emerge.  
Perceived Primary Purpose  
Universities counter these criticisms by arguing that it is not their primary purpose to prepare their students for job specific roles. Recent statements from senior university people in the media representing the Russell League/Group of universities restated this somewhat precious viewpoint, which surely harped back to the elitist and ivory tower model of Victorian higher education system. So the impression is that the traditional suspicions between education and business still persist and each continues to be wary of the other. One interesting consequence from employers to this problem is the development of in-company schemes to train recent recruits and the development of corporate universities. Also many large companies are returning to recruiting school/college students and providing either day release or in-house programmes i.e. growing their own talent where the employees learn on job the necessary skills, knowledge, understanding and competences for that particular job or professional role. Obviously it remains to be seen if the reformed apprenticeship programmes will improve the flow of properly skilled people into business and strengthen the education/training and employer links. Internships also offer some hope but recently companies have been requiring students to pay for their placement which makes this a somewhat exclusive option i.e. it allows entry to only students who have the money to pay. Also it must be noted that this development is occurring predominantly with financial services and industries.
Recent developments with Foundation Degrees and Graduate Apprenticeships promised much but still have not reached a critical mass in key subjects to have any real impact. In fact Graduate Apprentices were launched with great gusto but petered out as quickly. Foundation Degrees were a result of Tony Blair’s misplaced and misguided statement about increasing university education to 50% by 2010 which has misfired with the recent recession. Seventy graduates now chase every job vacancy and equally sadly often involving graduates with degrees in subjects not in demand or in over supplied subjects. The supply-demand equation is very unbalanced at this critical time of recession. Foundation Degrees have also undermined Higher National Certificates and Diplomas which have long been greatly valued by many employers (another example of academic drift is to attach degree to the title and think it is more important!). These forerunner awards were very much vocationally focused.
Opportunities for Work Placements
The more traditional honours degrees must surely incorporate enhanced guidance, feedback and reflection elements and high-level employability key skills into the programmes. In spite of the current recession there must be a dramatic extension in programmes of work experience, job shadowing, internships etc. Companies particularly the small and medium sized must receive some form of support and encouragement say via tax incentives to take students on such programmes.
In order to move the debate forward and to make the HE curriculum more vocationally relevant and work related the following points could be considered:
·         Consolidate and build upon the undoubted benefits and value of work experience; provision needs to expand in order to achieve a critical mass and so have a greater impact
·         HE institutions to develop and refine methods of recording students’ work experiences via reflective/critical diaries, portfolios, records of achievement and transcripts
·         Encourage and truly value the contributions made by employers and not treat their involvement as tokenistic and cosmetic
·         Develop stronger and more effective partnerships with other institutions e.g., colleges and training providers and employers
·         Introduce employability skills into all degree programmes
·         HE Institutions to make closer links with strategic economic planners in the process of introducing or improving curricula and programmes.
Based on an article first published in ‘t’ magazine in January 2004.
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