Why the HE skills debate is a false dichotomy

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, ICHEM, Leadership

To celebrate Professor Rajani Naidoo’s appearance at the Going Global 2023 conference, throughout November we’re spotlighting the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM).

In this post, Director of Higher Education Management Programmes Dr Dan Davies argues against the positioning of higher and further education in opposition to one another.

One of the ways in which higher education (HE) has traditionally been thought of as contributing to the global good is through the supply of highly skilled graduates able to take up roles in healthcare, education and the knowledge economy – thereby driving social and economic development.

However, this rationale has become increasingly clouded by the employability agenda – specifically a focus on graduate salaries as a proxy measure for the quality of university courses – with its instrumental focus on the ‘private good’ of students’ careers. Some question whether HE massification has gone ‘too far’ at the expense of the technical and vocational skills demanded by industry, which education systems such as Germany’s seem so good at supplying outside the university sector. This has been associated in the UK with a call for a return to apprenticeships, the closure of ‘low value’ university courses and moves to ‘rebalance’ the sector towards further rather than higher education.

This sets up a false dichotomy between the academic and the vocational, while attempts to restrict access to university education inevitably restrict social mobility. Increasingly the ‘hard skills’ employers are assumed to favour are those being overtaken by technology, while the ‘soft skills’ of creativity and emotional intelligence are precisely those attributes that HE is best able to develop.


Liberal and industrial

The skills debate is hardly new, reflecting two long-standing and competing rationales for education: the ‘liberal educators’ on one side advocating the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the ‘industrial trainers’ on the other to produce employable graduates. Traditional, pre-industrial HE focused on the pursuits of the mind, such as theology, classics and philosophy. The swing towards an industrial trainers’ perspective began with the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which generated a new kind of ‘technological’ university teaching science, engineering, medicine and other employability-focused disciplines.

Yet there remained, at least in England, a social class divide between what were considered ‘professions’ and ‘trades’, with the latter seen as better trained through apprenticeships or technical colleges  – ‘further’ rather than ‘higher’ education. Engineering in this context remained something of an anomaly, encompassing the social spectrum from slide rule to oily rag. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of the term ‘engineer’ that makes UK-based engineering courses so difficult to recruit to: the term carries no such class or gender baggage in India, which produces around 25% of the world’s engineering graduates.

The British snobbery towards technical and vocational education has continued to bedevil its further education (FE) sector since 1851, when The Great Exhibition – which was designed to demonstrate the superiority of UK design and manufacture – revealed that it was being overtaken by economies with better skills training, such as Germany. The moral panic that ensued has led to over a century and a half of tinkering with the FE sector – during my own career there have been at least eight major reforms of vocational education. Arguably, these have all had the purpose of bringing ‘parity of esteem’ with higher education, but have foundered on deep-seated cultural prejudices.

It cannot have helped that during this period the UK has become a largely post-industrial economy. It is surely no coincidence that the most rapid period of UK de-industrialisation – the 1980s – was followed in 1992 by the abolition of the ‘binary line’ between polytechnics and universities, with the recognition that a higher percentage of young people would require a university education to meet the demands of the emerging ‘knowledge economy’.


Old and new

Yet the derogatory use of the term ‘poly’ has merely morphed into the coded references to ‘old and new’ or ‘pre-92 and post-92’ universities. Over 30 years on and despite the overtaking of several ‘old’ by ‘new’ universities in national rankings, there is still marked social stratification within the English HE sector, particularly between the Russell Group and ‘the rest’.

Recent government criticism of ‘low-value’ courses – which follows a media trend back to 1992 ridiculing ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ – is covertly aimed at post-’92 providers, with their broader social mix and market-sensitive offerings. The not-so-hidden discourse here is that, while middle-class kids continue to go to ‘proper’ universities to maintain social stratification in the professions, the working class are getting ‘above themselves’ to aspire to university education and are thereby being exploited by dodgy ex-polys when they would be better served training to be plumbers.

Yet the demand for HE continues to grow globally; there are several successful economies with much higher participation rates than the UK’s, suggesting that there are no natural limits to social mobility and that an academic education can also be one that is competency-based. The rise of micro-credentials and digital badges incorporated within – or sitting alongside – degree programmes can meet the needs of employers with skills-based hiring approaches.

The work of Ward et al. (2022) in a recent ICHEM research project on skills profiling has demonstrated how in the fast-paced IT sector six UK universities have personalised their computing degrees with micro-credential badging to meet changing industry needs. These are so-called 21st Century skills: domain-specific competencies together with transferrable graduate attributes such as leadership, self-regulation and adaptability.

There is no conflict here with the need for more plumbers – which in the UK was probably caused by Brexit – since the global tech sector can probably absorb infinitely more graduates than the future drought-stricken bathrooms of the world can plumbing skills.

Just because a performing arts graduate from a post-’92 university may not be in professional employment six months after graduation, it does not mean that their course was ‘low-value’; after all, the UK arts and culture sector has grown by 10% per year and estimates of its contribution vary between £10 and £100 billion. Pitting FE and HE against each other in a ‘skills culture war’ as in the response to the 2019 Augar report is not only disingenuous after decades of underfunding of the FE sector, but counterproductive when we consider the kinds of skills that the so-called ‘4th industrial revolution’ will require.

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, ICHEM, Leadership

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