Vocational HE

Bringing an occupational focus into degree courses may be considered an important aspect of Government policy, but is HE prepared and willing to respond? Dr Dick Evans provides an interesting insight.

The crude oppositional approach to debates between vocational (training) and academic education has been a long and largely unproductive one. Many reports and government publications have over many decades advocated the merits of recognising the equal value of vocational education and training within the Further and Higher sectors.

It now appears that this government have rediscovered the importance of vocational education particularly at the higher education level and through a number of initiatives intends to place a higher priority on this critically important topic. Examples of this possible commitment are the creation of Foundation Degrees (FDs), the Graduate Apprenticeships (GAs) (whatever happened to them?), the need to emphasise in degree programmes the importance of work based learning and the development of personal and social key skills within a workplace environment. Interesting to note how little reference was made to higher vocational education in the recent White Paper on a National Skills Strategy. Before I consider these latest developments a little history might prove useful to refresh our minds on these long standing debates.


Ever since the Great Exhibition (1851) and the Paris Exhibition (1867) when it became clear that Britain was losing its supremacy in manufacturing, innumerable Royal Commissions and other reports stressed the urgent need to improve education and training at all levels in the educational system. For example since the 1950s various changes were made to the HE system in order to respond to the increasing challenges from international competitors. For example in 1956 a number of institutions were designated or created to become technological and vocational in character. Colleges of Advanced Technology, (CATs), were established focussing on higher levels of work and awarded Diplomas in Technology and following the Robbins Report these ten institutions were granted university status in 1963. In 1967 Anthony Crossland in one of two seminal speeches criticised universities for what he described as their lack of.response to society’s needs and indicating that greater responsiveness would only come from institutions which were “under more direct social control’. Thus Polytechnics were created and were seen by central government as being different from universities in terms of the type of degree awarded, the balance between teaching and research, as well as the comprehensive nature of the student population. Polytechnics eventually became universities in 1991/2.

Many of these institutions developed innovative vocational degree programmes with strong links with industry. Many of the degree programmes included provision of thick sandwich placements. These placements were seen as offering realistic experiences in the workplace and were greatly valued by both students and employers. Sadly following the decline in the employer base, particularly with large employers, sandwich programmes both thick and thin decreased. In addition even then problems with student, institutional and employer finances also contributed to this decline. A number of HE institutions continued to offer vocationally focussed provision but academic drift continued, reflecting the historical hostility to the more vocationally focussed programmes, (with certain exceptions like law, accountancy, medicine), and the increasing wish of students to pursue the more academic programmes which were perceived to offer more security and better paid careers. In addition the funding methodologies encouraged universities to offer provision that was in demand and as a result to reduce the low recruiting programmes often-in high cost programme areas. These factors along with others contributed to the current and wide ranging skills shortages in engineering, technology, science and the more practical disciplines. A specific example of this move away from the more practical and vocational and strategically important provision is starkly shown by the closure of 79 departments of engineering and science in the university sector over the past 6 years. Even this veiy brief and partial historical discourse highlights that the debate is still alive but with little evidence of a long-term resolution. Many employers still argue that the majority of their graduate recruits lack experience and relevant qualifications, which ‘gel’ with their requirements.


So will the various announcements and initiatives by this government address and resolve this longstanding problem? One of Peter Day’s recent Radio 4 “In Business” programmes would indicate not, as employers have major concerns about the quality of graduates and are becoming frustrated by university products. Many argue that universities are out of touch with the needs of business and operate in isolation from the world of work. Too often graduates have little or no understanding of the business and commercial world. The widely held view from employers is that there is a real gap between academics and business worlds – each seem to operate in separate boxes – the view is academic needs first then business needs. Many cite international practices e.g. US, Germany and Hong Kong where the universities work very much closer with employers. In addition many employers feel that academic staff are often not up to date with current technical and business practises e.g. e-business. Employers from a wide range of disciplines want ‘job ready’ graduates who possess real experience and understand more the needs of the workplace. Skills such as problem solving, the possession of the other wider key skills and the importance of deadlines are seen to be essential and employers feel that universities still do not prepare students for these aspects.


Universities still argue strongly that it is not their primary purpose to prepare their students for job specific roles. In the radio programme a senior university person from a Russell league instititution restated this somewhat precious viewpoint, which surely harped back to the elitist and ivory tower model of the Victorian higher education system. So the impression is that the traditional suspicions between education and business still persist and each continues to be wary of the other. So what can be done to resolve this very real problem that surely holds back this country in the global market and reduces our competitiveness? One interesting consequence that reflects the employers concern is the development of in-company schemes to train recent recruits and the development of corporate universities. Also many large companies are returning to recruiting school/college students and providing either day release or in-house programmes i.e. growing their own timber where the employees learn on job the necessary skills, knowledge, understanding for that particular business.

So are the current developments likely to address and begin to resolve these problems? Foundation Degrees (FDs) – it is too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions from the first prototypes. The recent foundation degree publication (1) provides little insight into the impact of the prototypes. It will be interesting to read and analyse the QAA (2) report just published on the prototypes and the Robertson and Yorke HEFCE evaluation report (3) when it becomes available to assess how effective the piloting was. Major concerns still persist about how the prototypes were chosen and how representative they were across key vocational areas – many were associated with disciplines that already are over-supplied in the employment market e.g. media and associated subjects, IT, hospitality and tourism. A number of FDs were just reconfigured HNDs so one must ask if the programmes were attracting new learners or just recycling those who were already in the system. Also if the Foundation Degrees are to become the major vehicle for sub-degree programmes what will happen to existing programmes e.g. the very vocationally focussed CGLI Higher Level Qualifications, HND/Cs, Dip HEs – it is essential that these continue to provide choice and complement the developing FDs. What ever happened to the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA)? – it seems to have been launched with gusto and then disappeared rapidly- the template promised much and allowed progression for people pursuing the work base route on the National Qualification Framework (NQF). Could this be an indication that the FD will be the primary qualification within the NQF for progression on to honours degree level? Foundation degrees can only hope to partly address the issue of vocational HE and if successful must complement other vocationally specific sub-degree programmes and honour degrees courses.


The more traditional honours programmes must incorporate enhanced guidance, feedback and reflection elements and high-level key skills (such as team working, interpersonal skills, problem solving and self-learning and management which the graduates need for success in employment and life in general. Opportunities for work placements should also be extended via thick and thin sandwich programmes. It is important that the current discussions for the funding of HE for both institutions and students must encourage and facilitate work placement programmes. Student debt could deter them from lengthening the

study periods although those universities who operate placements report employers are prepared to pay the students and many are offered positions after they graduate. Clearly companies might need to be encouraged and supported to offer placements particularly small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The work placements must be recognised and assessed and as a result add value to the student’s CV. CGLI are currently recognising placements by way of their long established Senior Awards system and this is being taken up by universities, colleges and employers. These approaches although not new can if properly managed and resourced add value to the student’s experience of the world of work. The majority of students already work in order to assist with their personal finances and although much of the work could be seen as menial the associated experiences are often relevant to employment and should be recognised by way of a transcript or record of achievement so that employers can then make judgements about the value of these experiences.


In order to make the HE curriculum more vocationally relevant and work related the following points could be considered:

  • Build on the undoubted value of work placements – need to expand provision in order to achieve a critical mass to have a greater impact.
  • Small and medium sized companies should be supported by the government to offer work placements through some form of financial incentive or tax benefit.
  • Continue to develop FDs along side existing sub-degree provision in order to create a wide range of provision aimed at the higher technician and associate professional level.
  • Encourage and truly value the contributions made by employers and not treat their involvement as tokenistic and cosmetic.
  • Existing degree programmes to accelerate the introduction of the wider key skills.
  • Develop strong and effective partnerships with other providers e.g. training providers and colleges.
  • Universities to further refine methods of recording students work experiences via transcripts or records of achievement


(1) “Foundation Degrees”, foundation degree DfES

(2) QAA Review of Foundation Degrees. QAA November 2003.

(3) “Evaluation of Foundation Degrees”. HEFCE due in May 2004.

(Interesting to note this article was picked up be other journals including a CGLI publication.)

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