UK needs universities of technology, but not polytechnics – v-c

Institutions focused on applied research and employer-informed curricula could be vital part of more coherent post-16 system, says LSBU chief

November 23, 2023
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New “universities of technology” (UoTs) are needed in the UK as part of a more coherent, less competitive post-16 education system that can better meet the country’s growing skills needs, according to a new report.

These more technically focused institutions would not represent a return to the polytechnic era, said the paper’s author, David Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, but be globally competitive universities, albeit with a different ethos and environment to the generalist institutions that currently dominate the UK system.

Professor Phoenix outlines the case for UoTs as part of his wider vision for what a working skills system might look like in a Higher Education Policy Institute paper published on 23 November.

“While some universities would continue to follow a comprehensive model, other more technically focused institutions – universities of technology – would be supported to focus on applied research and innovation, coupled with employer-informed curricula, in order to boost local economic growth and job creation,” he writes.

The report argues that the UK’s current education system only serves learners who follow the standard route through GCSEs and A levels to university, while failing to provide clear routes for those who wish to pursue more technical education.

Because of funding constraints, universities and colleges have diversified far from their original specialisms, leading to duplication of courses and a “quasi-market” that does not serve students and undermines institutions’ ability to form the partnerships needed for a “functioning” system, it says.

Campus resource: Engaging students in applied research to tackle the SDGs

In contrast, UoTs could collaborate with their closest further education colleges to provide “learning pathways” and stability, which would allow each institution to focus on a particular aspect of provision.

Professor Phoenix told Times Higher Education a UoT would seek “to compete on an international scale via its teaching and research but [with] a narrower subject focus than more generalist institutions, plus their teaching and research [would be] informed by close engagement with industry and the professions”.

“This approach leads to high graduate salaries, driving competition for places and strong social mobility coupled to high levels of translational research and economic impact,” he said.

“This isn’t a vision for revamped polytechnics – this is about creating globally leading institutions with a different ethos and environment to a generalist research intensive or teaching intensive institution.”

Professor Phoenix said the “new ecosystem” he proposes would need a skills or enterprise council to fully function.

Without a body to review the system, “the current regulatory and funding levers will continue to drive organisations to a homogenous middle competing solely on perceptions that have been embedded in our psyche through the Oxbridge model”, he said.

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