A higher education report to remember?

Or not much of an impact?

It’s a month or so now since the publication of the IPPR report on securing the future of higher education in England.

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It was a big report based on a considerable amount of work by a group headed by Nigel Thrift. But, despite an initial flurry, it doesn’t seem to have had much an impact. 23 recommendations covered a number of funding issues but also postgraduate matters, teaching, admissions, regulation, R&D and student visas.

The one recommendation which seems to have gathered more interest than any others (at least in the mainstream press) is the proposal to allow large FE colleges which already have degree awarding powers to apply to use the the title ‘Polytechnic’. According to BBC News the report wanted to ‘bring back polytechnics’ with the title representing a “mark of vocational excellence”:

Nigel Thrift, chairman of the commission and Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University said the revival of polytechnics “would signal that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system”.

The first 30 polytechnics opened in the 1960s “in an attempt to ensure working-class communities benefited” from the expansion of higher education, say the authors.

Unlike universities “polytechnics tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies”.

But by the early 1990s changes to the labour market meant academic qualifications were seen as the best route to a good job, says the study.

So in 1992 the government turned the polytechnics into ‘new universities’. Now almost half of school leavers go to university. The downside, according to the report, was that a “distinctive role for higher vocational learning was arguably lost”.

The authors say reviving polytechnic status would give vocational learning a much needed boost in an economy which suffers from “significant shortages” of technical skills.

It’s an intriguing and rather striking proposal. But it is not clear that it is really offering anything meaningful in terms of vocational education. Rather it looks like a perpetuation of inflationary designations in higher education following the decision last year to allow very small HEIs to become universities.

On the plus side it is effectively a cost-free recommendation.

But the chances of this or indeed many of the other recommendations in the report having much impact look slight. So it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a Robbins or a Dearing. But perhaps it is a bit too early to tell

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