A new report penned by Aston University and London South Bank University (LSBU) has called on the government to invest in the nation’s Universities of Technology to “deliver its ambition to ‘level up'”.
Published today, Truly Modern Technical Education outlines various challenges currently faced by the higher technical education sector – which encompasses universities and higher learning providers focused on the creation, enhancement and application of technical knowledge to drive enterprise growth and enhance economic productivity.
Universities of Technology include sub-degree programmes (Level 4 and 5), degree programmes (Level 6), postgraduate programmes (Level 7) and doctoral programmes (Level 8). The report notes that since 2019, 39% of UK university students where enrolled in technical disciplines.
These technically-focused institutions also provide added value in their research, which is quickly and easily applicable to the real world, along with their ability to align with industry and work closely alongside technical professions. Aston is itself a technical university, playing a key role in supporting local small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through its Centre for Growth; while LSBU is a University of Technology known for training two-thirds of all building service engineers for the UK construction industry.
The report draws on data from an online poll of SMEs, 60% of whom felt that universities should make more/much more effort to ‘work with local businesses to support them and grow’, while 62% agreed that technical education providers should do more/much more to ‘work with local businesses to improve efficiency through new capabilities or processes’.
“To raise productivity and deliver its ambition to ‘level up’, the government must actively support the UK’s Universities of Technology by funding the applied research that will help build their reputation and cut through the outdated snobbery about technical education” – Prof David Phoenix, LSBU
But Universities of Technology across the country face three major challenges that hinder their ability to deliver on the above, notes the report, including:
- Inadequate funding structures that do not support specialist technical training programmes, thus contributing to the homogenisation of higher education.
- UK policymakers have primarily focused on traditional residential three-year degrees rather than higher technical programmes which are delivered part-time or to mature students.
- A significant lack of investment in applied research (research that turns innovation and knowledge into enterprise) which limits collaboration with SMEs (which comprise 99% of all UK companies) to develop new products and services and stimulate the local economy.
“To raise productivity and deliver its ambition to ‘level up’, the government must actively support the UK’s Universities of Technology by funding the applied research that will help build their reputation and cut through the outdated snobbery about technical education,” said Professor David Phoenix, vice-chancellor (VC) of LSBU.
“Today, the UK’s Universities of Technology are training the next generation of skilled workers, including scientists, engineers, public servants, medics and nurses. If the government wants to expand opportunity across the country, they must ensure that all learners have clear pathways into higher technical qualifications and that Universities of Technology are adequately funded to deliver them.”
In light of the challenges faced by the sector, the report also urges the government to act on a number of recommendations, including:
- Make the lifelong learning account wholly cashable to allow for partial payments and for the balance to be ‘saved’ by learners for later use.
- Extend the Apprenticeship Levy so employers can use it to sponsor employees through higher technical Level 4 and 5 qualifications.
- Invest in pilot programmes to inspire collaboration between further and higher education providers.
- Boost funding so students over 19 years old who don’t possess a Level 2 qualification feel supported and able to do so.
- Strengthen the link between skills and R&D.
- Increase investment for applied research in Universities of Technology where it’s linked to commercial growth that will outweigh the public investment.
- Encourage universities to create business schools that will support their local innovation ecosystem over the next five to 10 years.
- Ensure higher technical learning institutes play a fundamental role in the development of local economic or industrial strategies.
Professor Alex Cameron, VC of Aston University, commented: “In this report we present our solution to the UK’s productivity problem. We contend that the UK must join up the two ‘missing middles’ of our economy; Levels 4 and 5 in technical education and applied research. Both have been underfunded and overlooked in the past and it is time to remedy this if we want every region to thrive.
“We call on government to reform the way funding works for higher technical skills and applied research to really unleash the potential of Universities of Technology” – Prof Alec Cameron, Aston University
“Universities of Technology already exist in the UK; they are working with their local industries to develop a pipeline of skilled workers and their research is directly applied by its business and public sector beneficiaries. We call on government to reform the way funding works for higher technical skills and applied research to really unleash the potential of Universities of Technology.”