by Kat Emms
For two years Edge Foundation has been drawing together lessons from past education policies. Government is at risk of institutional amnesia for a variety of reasons, such as a high level of organisational churn (Stark, 2018) and at Edge we believe it is essential that decision-making about future policy builds on and adapts evidenced best practice from the past, in order to avoid repeatedly falling into the same traps. As part of Edge’s Learning from the Past series one recent initiative was SRHE Fellow Professor Gareth Parry’s (Sheffield) paper on Polytechnics.
The polytechnics were designated in the 1960s as new institutions formed from existing technical and other colleges within the English further education system, and with one in Wales. Rather than focussing on traditional further education provision, these establishments wholly or largely concentrated on higher education (‘advanced’) courses. In the 1960s Britain was facing an increase in demand for higher education and these new institutions would help meet this demand. Furthermore they would help diversify the sector through offering higher education across a number of levels, notably sub-degree as well as degree and postgraduate courses, while also offering the ability to study in different modes (full-time, sandwich and part-time). Offering sub-degree qualifications and more flexible modes of study supported access to higher education for those who would otherwise not have had such opportunities.
The new polytechnics were mostly formed by a merger between two or three colleges – colleges of technology, art, commerce or more narrowly specialist institutions. The responsibility for these newly developed institutions lay with local government (Sharp, 1987), with awarding powers coming from the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA).
The polytechnics policy was based on an economic need to equip the workforce with the vocational, professional and industrially-based expertise it required, particularly in the face of international competition. Traditional universities were not able to meet this need alone. Polytechnics provided centres of excellence at higher education level across a range of disciplines, and offered more practice-based, work-related learning. The CNAA’s charter required that their degrees be comparable in standard and quality with those in universities (Silver, 1990).
By the late 1980s the polytechnics were becoming large institutions with strong national roles, equipped with their own central admissions service to manage student applications. Their establishment as independent, self-directing institutions was realised by the Education Reform Act of 1988, which removed the polytechnics and larger higher education colleges from local government control. The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 eliminated the binary divide and enabled the polytechnics to acquire university title and the power to award their own degrees.
The former polytechnics increasingly shared similarities with existing universities, partly because traditional universities also adapted to compete and meet societal demands, for example through widening participation in their student recruitment and developing more work-related elements for their existing curricula.
Several features bequeathed by the original polytechnics can still be seen in today’s twenty-first century HE system. In the 1960s/1970s the polytechnics tackled skill shortages facing many sectors in the UK economy; in 2017 Degree Apprenticeships (DAs) were established for similar reasons. The advent of DAs emphasised a vocational orientation, with these courses now firmly a feature in pre-1992 universities including those in the Russell Group, as well as the former polytechnics. This epitomises the polytechnics policy, which explicitly aimed to achieve a ‘blurring of boundaries’ and ‘a breakdown of the traditional demarcation between vocational and academic courses’ (Pratt, 1997, p309). DAs were meant to be an innovative new model bringing together the best of higher and vocational education, whilst also upholding the same standards as non-apprenticeship degrees. Not only are DAs continuing to blur the academic/vocational divide within the sector, they are also supporting the formation of new partnerships between employers and higher education providers in order to develop new forms of higher-level, occupationally relevant education.
As well as helping the HE sector to diversify provision, polytechnics were acclaimed for expanding and diversifying the student population going into higher education (Scott, 1995). DAs have the same aim: they target school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mature learners already in the workforce, to offer them the opportunity to enter higher education. However, so far the evidence that they are achieving this is mixed, with recent research showing that fewer degree apprentices are eligible for free school meals than those attending university (Cavaglia et al, 2022).
As with the polytechnics in the 1960s, the HE sector is also seeing again the opening of new, and arguably innovative, higher education institutions across England. Locally focussed developments such as Milton Keynes University, ARU Peterborough and UA92 aim to meet the needs of the local community and employers. They do this through a particular emphasis on designing and developing their provision in collaboration with local stakeholders including the local authority and employers.
The new HEIs are to an extent emulating the polytechnics’ approach, not necessarily by offering distinctly new professional routes, but in ensuring that students’ education is continuously relevant to the real-world and professional life, through engaging with employer projects or developing students with a wide set of transferable skills. This is reinterpreting ‘vocation’ in a way which is more relevant to the 21st century: a profile career and the development of transferable personal skills is crucial for today’s workforce, compared to the sometimes narrower range of technical skills required and delivered by the polytechnics.
The polytechnics transformed the HE sector by diversifying provision and the student population. The blurring of the academic and vocational divide can still be seen in today’s higher education sector, particularly when we consider degree apprenticeships and newly established higher education institutions, with their provision becoming adapted to a 21st century world of work. At Edge Foundation we are exploring these two areas in our forthcoming research which will be published in early 2023.
Katherine Emms is Senior Education and Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research cover higher education, vocational education, skills shortages and employability skills.