New Institutes of Technology aim to bolster technical education

The UK government has announced it will spend £170m of new capital funding to establish Institutes of Technology, which will be responsible for delivering ‘higher level’ technical education in STEM subjects across the UK. The proposal is part of a post-Brexit plan published in the government’s green paper, Building our industrial strategy, which is out for consultation until 17 April.

In establishing these institutes, the government acknowledges that technical education for the 50% of students who do not pursue an academic path is seriously lacking, stating it is too general and does not prepare students for further study or employment. According to a report published by the CBI last year, Unlocking regional growth; understanding the drivers of productivity across the UK’s regions and nations, shortages in basic and technical skills underpin the UK’s persistently lower levels of productivity compared with other advanced economies.

John Holman, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, commented, ‘Technical education has long been a weakness in England when compared with Germany and the Netherlands, for example. Too often, young people opt for university when a higher level technical qualification would suit them better. One of the problems has been the availability of specialist technical programmes that genuinely offer what employers are after in specialist technical fields. The creation of these new Institutes of Technology is an important contribution to tackling this problem.’

The green paper proposes that the new institutes will provide technical education tailored to the needs of employers in the local area. They will involve local employers, both in leadership and in the design of the curriculum, and are expected to offer qualifications from the equivalent of A-level to just below foundation degree-level.

Jenny Clucas, head of strategy at not-for-profit organisation Cogent Skills for Science Industries, comments, ‘Placing these new Institutes of Technology within existing providers as an extension of their offer would seem to be the way forward, given the level of capital funding proposed. The priority has to be the curriculum and quality of training provision, and coordinating this with the science sector’s needs.’ The technical options set out, she adds, should prepare individuals for skilled employment in a range of STEM occupations that require both advanced technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry.

The government is also proposing that a new technical education framework of qualifications should be defined by just ‘15 core technical routes’ to rid the sector of the low quality qualifications that currently exist and offer students little in the way of useful skills. The routes have yet to be designed but they will be aligned with the labour market. Each route will start with a two-year programme for 16–19-year-olds and extend to higher skill levels, leading to professional competence in a number of defined occupations. Students will be able to progress onto an apprenticeship, employment or college-based further education.

As part of the new system of technical education, the government is also exploring a ‘UCAS-approach’ to applying for courses in the sector. This, it argues, would give those considering the technical route clearer information throughout the application process and create genuine parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications.

Jenny says, ‘These institutes could be good news for learners and employers alike because they provide an unprecedented opportunity to position academic and technical qualifications on an equal footing, and should offer a quality progression pathway for students. This should ensure that in future technical education is a distinctive, prestigious, high-quality offer in its own right and a positive, informed choice for young people.’