Pushing the academic path at the expense of technical education has stretched the link between education and the economy almost to breaking point

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen installed the first commercial steam engine at Conygree coalmine in the West Midlands. It pumped 10 gallons of water per stroke from a shaft more than 50yd deep.

In the years that followed, James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton, improved the Newcomen’s steam engine. Others then followed, not just with the steam engine but with looms, drills and a host of other machines.

The Industrial Revolution was built by artisans and experts, not by graduates in theology, law and the classics. These were engineers who knew their machines and found ways to make them better.

The lessons were not lost on Britain’s competitors. Germany in particular invested in technical and vocational training throughout the 19th century. Indeed, much of modern Germany’s economic strength stems from a lasting commitment to technical pathways through school, apprenticeship and beyond.

England went in a different direction. Here, the academic path from grammar school to university and the professions came to dominate ideas about education. The vocational path was a distant second.

My friend, Ron Dearing, chaired a National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education in the mid-1990s. The Dearing Report called for a significant expansion of higher education to support a learning society and the knowledge economy.

This formed the basis of Tony Blair’s pledge that 50 per cent of all young people below the age of 30 would experience higher education. We came tantalisingly close
in 2011-12, when participation reached 49.5 per cent.

However, growth was uneven. First degrees grew by more than 75 per cent in the humanities, art and design, but by less than 20 per cent in engineering and computer science.

The results are plain to see. The Office for National Statistics has revealed that nearly half of all recent graduates – 47 per cent – are in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, we face growing shortages of people with high-level technical skills.

One reason is that Ron Dearing’s subtle and intelligent report was reduced to a single, simplistic target. We failed to heed his recommendation that “… much of the further growth of higher education, at least in the short term, should be in the Higher National Certificate, the Higher National Diploma and other analogous awards”.

Among 20 to 45-year-olds, barely 10 per cent have high-level technical qualifications

Again, the results speak for themselves. As the OECD reported last month, we have far fewer people with high-level technical qualifications than our principal competitors. Among 20 to 45-year-olds, the figure is barely 10 per cent.

A few days ago, the CBI’s John Cridland, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady and Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, put their names to a report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, “Growth Through People”. Their message is clear: businesses aren’t getting the skills they need and there aren’t enough pathways to higher technical skills.

The UKCES report rightly points to university technical colleges (UTCs) as a good example of how technical education can be developed and delivered in partnership with employers. UTC sponsors and supporters range from household names such as Siemens and Toyota to hospital trusts and local businesses employing fewer than 20 people.

When students leave a UTC, they can change direction because they have a solid core of academic qualifications. However, most choose to continue in a specialist field such as engineering, technology or science. At JCB Academy in Staffordshire, almost half of this year’s 18-year-olds opted for apprenticeships leading to high level technical qualifications.

UTC alumni are following in the footsteps of Newcomen, Watt, Boulton … and present-day giants such as Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s world-famous designer and innovator. They know their machines, their products, their software – and they will find ways to make them better. They will build the next Industrial Revolution.

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Lord Baker is Chairman of the Edge FOundation and the Baker Dearing Trust