Education & Family

Bring back polytechnics, argues higher education report

Nissan car plant engineers
Image caption New polytechnics are needed to help redress skill shortages in industry, a report argues

The government should revive the term 'polytechnic' argues a report into the future of higher education in England.

Large further education colleges which already have degree awarding powers should be eligible to apply for polytechnic status say the authors.

The title would be a "mark of vocational excellence" argues the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

A government spokesman said the report included "much food for thought".

The commission was set up by the Institute of Public Policy Research think-tank a year ago.

Nigel Thrift, chairman of the commission and Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University said the revival of polytechnics "would signal that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system".

The government opened 30 polytechnics in the 1960s "in an attempt to ensure working-class communities benefited" from the expansion of higher education, say the authors.

'Role lost'

Unlike universities "polytechnics tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies".

But by the early 1990s changes to the labour market meant academic qualifications were seen as the best route to a good job, says the study.

So in 1992 the government turned the polytechnics into 'new universities'. Now almost half of school leavers go to university. The downside, according to the report, was that a "distinctive role for higher vocational learning was arguably lost".

The authors say reviving polytechnic status would give vocational learning a much needed boost in an economy which suffers from "significant shortages" of technical skills.

Increasingly complex technology in industries from manufacturing and engineering to pharmaceuticals and broadcasting mean these shortages are becoming worse, they argue.

The authors back initiatives such as high-quality apprenticeships and the planned technical baccalaureate for school leavers.

The vocational route should no longer be "seen as the track for those who have failed academically", they argue.

"There is a crucial role here for higher-level qualifications, provided by further education colleges."

The report highlights two colleges, Newcastle College and New College Durham, which were in 2011 given the power to award their own foundation degrees.

Other colleges have already applied for the same power and the report argues that more should follow, adding that "large further education colleges providing higher education should be given the ability to award degrees and such colleges should be granted the renewed use of the title, polytechnic".

The authors also say the current student funding system is unsustainable, unfair and needs reform. They suggest a number of possible alternatives.

Lower fees

In particular they recommend new lower fee degrees for vocational students living at home.

Degree courses costing £5,000 a year instead of the current £6-£9,000 would be open to "local students who would be eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support".

"Many of these places would be offered by the new polytechnics and further education colleges in partnership with universities".

Gill Clipson of the Association of Colleges called the £5,000 degree plan "a welcome opportunity" however she was less convinced of the need for the title 'polytechnic'.

"This is a question not so much about an institution's title but of the value placed upon the distinctive, specialist, high-quality provision already on offer," she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Business, Industry and Skills said "This is a useful contribution to the debate on how to maintain and improve the reputation of our world-class university sector.

However, the alternative undergraduate funding models that are discussed would cost more for families, taxpayers and graduates while doing nothing to improve the student experience."

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