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Young People: Alternatives to University — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:03 pm on 23rd October 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bhattacharyya Lord Bhattacharyya Labour 3:03 pm, 23rd October 2014

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Monks on securing this important debate. Along with many noble Lords speaking today, he deserves great credit for this issue having moved to the top of the political agenda. I declare my interest as chairman of Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick. A university chair may seem an unusual interest to declare in this debate, but WMG has a strong focus on those who do not traditionally enter higher education. These young people can achieve extraordinary things. I think of Chris Toumazou, who left school at 16 without enough CSEs for sixth-form college, and has since progressed from City and Guilds to Regius professor. Although exceptional, his career demonstrates the transformative potential of technical education. As many noble Lords have said, we in Britain are, sadly, far behind our global rivals in realising this potential.

This is not a new problem. The Feilden and Finniston reports, and many others, said the same thing. Worse, as the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, has acknowledged, over the last 30 years,

“there has been a hollowing out of our post-secondary provision”,

against even that poor record. Too few young people are getting a good technical education and moving from there into well paid work. Today, businesses fear having to use scarce resources to train young workers in everything from basic literacy to technical skills.

Where then will we find the 830,000 engineers who, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, just said, we need to replace retiring technicians? I do not want him to blush but one solution is strengthening technical education before 18. Technical schools were the orphan of Butler’s tripartite system. The university technology colleges set up by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, now give us hope and a chance to rectify that mistake. This autumn, we at WMG opened our first UTC, with a curriculum designed by the university and supported by leading engineering firms such as Jaguar Land Rover. Jaguar Land Rover requires another 20,000 technician workers in the next five years and we cannot find them. We have recently received government permission to open another in Solihull. Businesses support the academy because they can see how it will prepare students for a career. Parents are enthused because they see the quality of education their children get from a top university. I believe resources currently dedicated to free schools should be redirected to extending the UTC programme, as a first step in restoring technical schools in the educational pantheon.

Once these students have reached 18, they need a clear path to a widely recognised vocational status, such as the German technical engineer. Today that path is hard to find. We have seen a 40% decline in the number of people studying for HNCs, HNDs or foundation degrees. I would not mind if this was the result of limits being put on these poor-quality courses. Sadly, we have seen falls in fields such as engineering and computing, precisely where we need growth.

Changing this requires a new approach to student funding in further education. What progress has been made since the Secretary of State agreed to reconsider student funding for quality FE courses? Will the Government commit to expand advanced learning loans to under-25s? To be fair, the Government are keen to support apprenticeships, as the Prime Minister’s announcement of 3 million apprenticeships demonstrates. However, increasing the number of apprenticeships while degrading the brand should not be a consequence of a focus on large numbers. We must prioritise extending the number of higher and advanced apprenticeships for under-25s. The key to achieving this is a greater partnership with small and medium-sized businesses. The Holt review showed that only one in 10 SMEs offers apprenticeships. The proportion offering higher and advanced apprenticeships is even lower.

To offer quality apprenticeships, smaller businesses need support to impart quality skills, with a curriculum that they own and help deliver. We therefore need to improve the skills provision of FE colleges and their reputation with local businesses. This is essential if we are to deliver courses that employers will value, pay for and send their young workers from the factory floor to college to complete.

Achieving this shift is a challenge not only for the Government, but for my own sector. If we want to change vocational learning, companies, FE colleges and universities must work together to give technical education a higher status. At WMG we do this by supporting modular degrees designed with employers, so apprentices can learn at their own pace and companies pay their full university salaries for that to happen. This creates broader access to degree and sub-degree courses. There is huge demand for these programmes, and the potential to expand such courses is massively clear, whether through FE colleges, in workplaces or online colleges.

Personally, I prefer the former two options, as they give a greater prospect of quality control and student interaction. In such a model, further education colleges would benefit from closer integration with universities in providing courses that have high status with students. Employers would welcome universities genuinely interested in helping them give greater opportunity to their workforce. Universities would be foolish to miss this opportunity.