On Monday, the Prime Minister announced a wide-ranging Government review of post-18 education.
In her speech, Mrs May called for a parity of esteem between ‘academic and technical options’ to ‘create a system of tertiary education that works for all our young people’. Some of those involved in higher education have optimistically seen this as a green light for the expansion of HE colleges, a wholescale change of thinking and a potential change to the tuition fees model. Others are more circumspect as the review is unlikely to cover the whole of post-18 education and training. Either way, the Prime Minister has responded to growing pressure not only over tuition fees but the yawning gap in the perception of traditional university education versus technical and vocational routes.
And it is long over-due. The system in place is still grossly biased towards academic qualifications, and school children are still overwhelming encouraged to take this option when they leave school at 18. However, taking a look into our crystal ball and the skills which the future workforce will require, the need to conduct immense amounts of research and write essays of great length will be replaced by more practical, technical skills. The growth of AI and the clamour for digital up-skilling points to an increasingly attractive alternative to a three year academic university course. Not that these should be dismissed, but the Government needs to find a way to make other options considerably more attractive to achieve the utopia of parity that the Prime Minister so often refers to in her big piece set speeches.
And what is abundantly clear, at the beginning of this review, is that without input from all stakeholders, this will fail. Employers, in whatever profession, will always need to know that candidates have basic literacy and numeracy skills, and that the course they have undertaken will have given the students the necessary proficiencies that would be expected. The tricky part is yet to come – how to convince business that a technical qualification is as good, if not better than a BA from a red brick university and that candidate A is as qualified (if not more so) as candidate B.
A cynic might look at this review and see it as a way for the Conservative Party to gain ground with younger voters. This demographic has been targeted by Corbyn and his front benchers with extremely attractive policies such as the scrapping of tuition fees. But this review cannot compete in that area – May has already said that the abolition of fees is not on the table. In which case, it is less political and more about achieving the PM’s great meritocracy. However, if it can realise its very laudable aims of providing ‘the right education for every child’ in whatever form this might take, this might just be the positive legacy that Mrs May will leave when she departs Downing Street. Let’s review in a year and see how far the Government will get.