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Star Tech – The Final Frontier

23 March 2016

Why further education should be at the forefront of technical education Despite the Industrial Revolution (or perhaps because of it), English culture has always been inclined to look down its nose at engineers and technicians. Technical expertise (the argument goes) is clearly essential, but is engineering a proper career for a gentleman? Working with machines surely means working in dirty and uncomfortable environments in close proximity to dirty and uncouth labourers. While engineering and technology in the 21st century bears little resemblance to these traditional stereotypes, social attitudes towards these sectors are in my experience often firmly stuck in the past. Perhaps this is why technical education has never been given a stable or secure place in the English education system. Despite decades of government initiatives and the work of many individual institutions, we are left today with a piecemeal and fragmented legacy. Instead of a high profile technical education sector, we have a patchwork of disconnected threads. Bits and pieces of specialist technical teaching and training are delivered by parts of the further and higher education sector, by a small number of specialist schools and more recently by a new generation of University Technical Colleges. As the Government launches yet another attempt to bolster the technical education sector through the creation of what the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills describes as “a new network of prestigious Institutes of Technology”, this is a good moment to pause and consider the terrain. Specifically, it’s timely to ask what is needed to restore general further education (FE) colleges to their rightful place at the forefront of the UK’s technical education strategy. Professor Alison Wolf, in her excellent and timely review ‘Heading for the Precipice – Can further and higher education funding policies be sustained?’ argues that there are two key reasons why universities are not best placed to provide vocationally-oriented technical education. They are self-contained and separate from the workplace University teachers, however ‘vocational’ their speciality, are making their careers as academics and researchers, not as practitioners of whatever profession, trade or calling they teach I would add that the current structure of most UK university provision, with its bias towards three year degree courses and students studying away from home, is a highly expensive one. To make matters worse, the current model of funding university study via loans, is unattractive to anyone wanting to combine work with study. Alison Wolf’s conclusion is that “vocational institutions which are genuinely close to employers and the workplace are needed.” In the UK we already have such institutions: FE colleges. General FE colleges which have managed to sustain the quality and breadth of their provision in areas such as engineering, computing, science and construction, during the lean times are uniquely well suited to deliver high quality technical education. They have key features that make them uniquely suited to the delivery of technical education: Their size enables them to recruit viable student cohorts in specialist occupations, such as Railway or Aviation Engineers, Dental Assistants, Lab Technicians, Beauticians or Digital Animators. They are therefore able to invest in the necessary specialist equipment and facilities and keep these updated. They are in constant contact with employers and subjects are taught in the main by lecturers with relevant industry experience. They are able to offer training to adults as well as young people and to those in employment as well as those preparing for employment. A negative stereotype of FE persists to this day. There are signs that politicians and the general public are beginning to realise the vital role FE Colleges play and – more importantly – the even greater role colleges could play. If FE colleges are properly supported and resourced, and if the ground is cleared to create a clear route between secondary school and undergraduate levels, then a sustainable and high quality technical education sector will quickly emerge. Andy Forbes is the Principal and Chief Executive of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London (CONEL).