Johnson should not try to abolish the distinction between academic and technical education

The Prime Minister’s announcement of what the papers are calling a ‘radical shake-up’ of higher and further education marks a return to the spotlight for the subject.

Having been one of the central reform programmes of the Coalition, education has slipped down the agenda under David Cameron’s successors. We noted at the time that the issue had ‘lost momentum’ under Theresa May, and in December it received just a single page in the Conservative Manifesto.

The spur for this latest tranche of reforms is the prospect of lots of people needing to re-skill as a result of losing their jobs during the pandemic. As the Telegraph reports: “a new “lifetime skills guarantee” offers a fully-funded college course to people over 18 in England without an A-level or equivalent.”

Boris Johnson also intends to make student loans more flexible, to allow people to space out their studies if they choose to do so, promised the right to four years’ of loans, and pledged to make it as easy to get loans for further education as higher education. All of these pledges will be underwritten by a a £2.5bn boost to England’s National Skills Fund, which was already announced.

All of these aims are laudable enough. But can they be delivered? Several newspapers have noted this morning that this is a task to which previous governments, with much less on their plates, have previously addressed themselves with little success. One journalist I spoke to recently said interest in FE is so low that a single article on the subject was getting him invitations to panels and conferences for almost a year.

Ministers have already made some moves to try and combat negative perceptions of technical education. Perhaps most significantly, this month saw the launch of the new T Levels, a set of post-GCSE courses which aim to replace the current alphabet soup of vocational qualifications with a more coherent and intelligible certificate with clear pathways to employment. (These got no mention in the 2019 Manifesto).

We might also expect to see future proposals based on the Augar Review, which proposed some popular headline measures such as cutting tuition fees alongside reforms to make sure more of the overall student loan book is repaid and – this will appeal to ministers – increase the Government’s “very limited control over the substantial taxpayer investment in higher education.”

However, one part of the Prime Minister’s statement is somewhat concerning:

“But if we are going to reform our post-18 education, we must go much further. We’ve got to end the pointless, nonsensical gulf that has been fixed for generations – more than 100 years – between the so-called academic and the so-called practical varieties of education. It’s absurd to talk about skills in this limited way… So now is the time to end this bogus distinction between FE and HE.”

Bridging the gap in prestige and investment between higher and further education is a worthwhile – indeed, essential – political project. But trying to obfuscate the fact that they are different things is not. It was the pursuit of this short-cut to parity of esteem that led to polytechnics rebranding as ‘universities’, which helped create the bloated sector that ministers and students alike are struggling with today.

Public attitudes towards academic and technical education won’t change in response to a centrally-mandated rebranding, any more than they did last time. The rush to badge everything a ‘university’, like the campaign for comprehensive schools before it, did not bridge the gulf between good and bad institutions – it just made it harder for some people (but seldom employers or middle-class parents) to distinguish between the two.

If the Prime Minister really wants to be the man who finally wins technical education a place in the nation’s heart, he must prepare for the long and difficult task of changing public attitudes towards it as a distinct discipline, on its own terms. Trying to borrow the feathers of academic learning will not work.

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