Blog: How universities deliver skills the country needs

16 February 2018

Through a series of reforms designed to strengthen the technical workforce, including the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, degree apprenticeships, T-levels and Institutes of Technology, the Government is seeking to create a parity of esteem between vocational and academic educational routes.

A greater commitment to investing in technical skills is welcome. As the Industrial Strategy White Paper recognises there is a shortage in technical skills, with significant unmet demand from employers for STEM skills in particular.

But how helpful is the distinction between “academic” and “vocational” (or technical) education?

Much of the rhetoric on this issue assumes that universities (and especially selective, research-intensive universities) deliver only academic courses whilst vocational education is delivered through other means (like apprenticeships and level 4 and 5 provision).

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But universities are already delivering vocational education at scale, and often these courses can also be highly academic in nature.

On Friday, HEFCE published a new analysis examining the extent to which degree courses are vocational. Vocational subjects are defined as those where a significant proportion of graduates enter a narrow set of occupations after six months, the assumption being that this is because graduates have been taught specific skills and knowledge in preparation for a specific occupation.

The analysis finds that around 20% of all first-degree courses are either highly or fairly vocational but all subjects include vocational elements to some extent.

Unsurprisingly, subjects such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science are classified as highly vocational: 90% of graduates of these courses enter professional employment in a small set of occupations within six months of graduation.

These courses are also undoubtedly highly academically demanding. Indeed, higher tariff universities (where courses are likely to be academically demanding) tend to have a slightly higher proportion of vocationally focused courses than others, due in part to the fact they have a high percentage of medicine graduates.

So clearly a course can be both highly “academic” and highly “vocational”. As HEFCE’s analysis notes, these characteristics are not mutually exclusive, so making a distinction between academic and vocational provision in policy terms may be problematic.

Another way of analysing the extent to which degree provision is vocationally focused, is to look at the number of courses which are accredited by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs). Such courses effectively provide graduates with a “licence to practice” in their chosen profession, from accountancy and architecture, to engineering, law and teaching. A Russell Group analysis estimates that over a quarter of all first-degree courses at UK universities are accredited by PSRBs and for integrated masters courses the figure is more like 40%.

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In the context of the Government’s reforms and the forthcoming post-18 funding review, it will therefore be important to recognise the contribution universities are already making to deliver technical and vocational skills.

The immense value provided to graduates and the UK’s economy and society by less vocational degree courses should also be recognised. Not only do such courses further students’ knowledge and understanding of the subject for its own sake, but they also equip graduates for successful and fulfilling careers.

A recent analysis of future demand for skills commissioned by Pearson found that broad-based knowledge areas such as English language, history, philosophy and administration and management are all associated strongly with occupations projected to see a rise in workforce share.

The Pearson analysis also predicted that in 2030 employers will place even greater importance on higher-order cognitive skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.

These predictions suggest we will need graduates trained not just to have the skills and expertise to succeed in one type of occupation, but to think critically, analyse and solve complex problems, and so have the capability to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market.

An environment in which students undertake their own research and inquiry - becoming researchers and independent thinkers in their own right – will continue to be crucial. Research-intensive learning environments support students to develop the personal and professional skills that are integral to graduate-level jobs, equipping them to be lifelong learners and to be creative and to innovate.

In the provision of research-intensive learning across a full range of disciplines, universities can therefore support the Government to meet its objectives to develop the skills we need for the future.

Our latest briefing paper demonstrates how Russell Group universities engage with employers to deliver skilled graduates.

This article was first published in Times Higher Education.

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