Priorities and Policies for HE-David Harbourne

UVAC 2014

David Harbourne, Director of Policy and Research, Edge Foundation

We shall not survive in this world if we in Britain alone down-grade the non-university professional and technical sector. No other country in the western world does so… Let us now move away from our snobbish caste-ridden hierarchical obsession with university status.

Anthony Crosland, April 1965

David emphasised that the quote, whilst 50 years old, is still as relevant today, we haven’t found a model that is equal.

In 2012 participation in higher education reached 49.5%, however growth in HE has been uneven. Humanities and business have increased by 70%+ in the last 10 years.

Degrees no longer guarantee good jobs, for example 30 months after graduation 35% of students from the Creative Arts and Law degrees were in non-graduate jobs. Interestingly approximately 15% studying engineering were not in graduate jobs. Overall there has been an increase of 5% since 2001 in non-graduate jobs (December 2011).

Greg Clark, Higher Education Minister believes there is no problem with the expansion of students going to University and we shouldn’t be excluding people.

Vince Cable has a different view and earlier this year outlined the need for a twin track approach whereby FE and the sub-degree routes get equal status. This is particularly important for HNC’s, HND’s, Higher Apprenticeships and Foundation Degrees. Vince’s vision is to have a series of National Colleges in key sectors such as rail, engineering and IT.

David believes this is a nice idea but underdeveloped and lacking detail on implementation. Similarly Liam Byrne’s idea of technical degrees part funded by government and a ‘earn while you learn’ proposal lacks details and sounds very similar to Higher Apprenticeships.

UKCES view is that FE colleges need to fill the gap to leverage higher level technical education. The OECD report (November 2014) reviewed technical and vocational degrees across 39 countries and the UK has approximately 10% studying technical/vocational degrees, by comparison Canada and Ireland has 33% and 30% respectively (Yay).

The call to action from David was that the politicians need to move beyond the rhetoric and look at long term plans for changing the nature of technical and vocational degrees in the UK.

In summary

The people in the room know much of what David shared with us, however the constant politicisation of higher-level learning means that there is no consistency and long-term strategy. There are too many changes which confuses employers , potential learners and parents.

David finished by adding that the tipping point will be when middle class parents realise that a traditional university route is not delivering and will start voting with their feet.

Scotland is more advanced than England in how it approaches skills and whilst not perfect they are much more committed to a longer term strategy.

An interesting first session but no definitive answers on how we make the shift.


Priorities and Policies for HE- Andy Westwood

UVAC 2014

Andy Westwood- Guild HE

Andy opened the session with a question “What might happen in 2015”? I was disappointed that he wasn’t predicting an upturn in fortune for my beloved Liverpool FC. Instead he highlighted six challenges for HE institutions from 2015-2020.

1. Political decisions about UG fees and student numbers
2. Immigration and student visas (there is no escaping the debate)
3. Research funding and the REF results
4. Capital funding
5. Specialist ‘high cost’ and workplace funds
6. Increasing competition (and demographic squeeze)

55% of the working population (approx. £20m) have a level 3 qualification, this is a huge population to progress to university. We should keep that in mind when looking at the demographic shift.

Andy guessed that by the end of the next parliament higher education in Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland and England will look considerably different.

Skills and human capital are the best bet to increase economic productivity and growth for the UK to survive in the ‘global race’.

What’s the big problem?

Andy highlighted that universities are doing ok so where is the mismatch between economic performance and productivity.

Mid-level jobs globally have been declining over that last 2 decades, therefore if your degree doesn’t get you into the high level job then you’ll fall into low skilled jobs. Andy introduced the term ‘Gringo’ which stands for graduates in non-graduate occupations.

The number of people studying HE level quals overall is dropping, albeit increasing in FT numbers. This is a worrying trend, it means more young people are going to University, in itself not a bad thing, however it is probably related to riding out the economic storm. Additionally, there will continue to be a declining number of young people (18-20) in the UK until 2021.

Andy walked us through some frightening stats about the sheer drop in ‘other HE’ provision. I alluded to this in my Blog earlier but to see the decline since 2010 in numbers is frightening.

The stats are as follows:

-28% fall in PG study
-50% fall in part-time study
-big falls in non honours degree provision (small awards, CPD etc)
-big falls in employer (public and private) funded provision

The ‘one-size fits all’ has become common place and isn’t helping the UK in the ‘global race’. Andy asked if we are in a higher education bubble and mentioned that the need for change is coming or is already here.

There was a clear message from Andy that no matter which party gets in there isn’t going to be much money to radically change the system. Perhaps this will be the tipping point I alluded to earlier?

HE Funds

An interesting statistic- 60% of students may never fully pay back their loans! YouGov found that 60% of parents are dissatisfied with fee levels….I’m surprised it is so low.

Political Parties

Andy gave a brief overview on each party and their respective views on HE, whilst there were differences in fee structures (Labour advocating £6k) and defining the best route for young people and employees to get qualified the overall structure of FE and HE would remain the same. There does seem to be consensus from all sides on improving apprenticeships, developing national colleges for FE/HE (Vince Cable’s baby) and giving Higher Apprenticeships and/or technical degrees more priority and status. There is much less agreement on UG fees and funding.

A similar message to that given by Andrew Battarbee and particularly interesting should we have another coalition government.

Reimagining HE

Andy challenged the status quo and suggested the time was now ‘reimagine HE’ offering up suggestions such as the end of ‘one size fits all’, the return of the polytechnic, more locally/regionally devolved system and clear links with industrial strategy.

He suggested that university strategies were ‘identikit’ and lack innovation and encouraged HE leaders to be more risk taking, better linked to employers and be ok with being different!


There is a need to diversify the system and link education with the industrial strategy where provision is co-created with employers and in line with the city region agenda so that skills developed are utilised and high value jobs are created.

An excellent session detailing some scary stats for universities. The need for change is NOW!

Have we reached a tipping point ?

I am on my way to attend the annual University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC) conference on  for the first time since 2011. I always enjoyed the conference but have not prioritised attendance for the last two years for one reason or another.

“UVAC is a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1999 by the higher and further education sector. We provide an independent voice for our members on matters relating to higher level vocational learning. Our mission is to champion higher level vocational learning”.

I’m attending as both a work-based learning practitioner and a blogger (inspired by the Blog squad at CIPD) for UVAC and the Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning or as all the cool kids call it ‘HESWBL’ (ripped from Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast or ‘RHLSTP’).

The main aim of the UVAC conference is to review trends, political decisions, employer needs and University practice in vocational higher level work-based learning.

Work-Based Learning (WBL) in Higher Education

The last 20 years has seen significant growth in WBL as a distinct field of business within universities rather than a consitutuent component within disciplinary or professional fields. It has long been acknowledged that high-level learning doesn’t just occur at university and its physical locations, but goes on in many other locations too. Controversial!

There are many Universities that have excellent systems and processes that enable them to work effectively and efficiently with employers to meet their workforce development needs by using the workplace as a site of learning. Of course this concept is not new for vocational education, however higher education grappled with it for a long time before accepting that YES you can learn in the workplace and that it can be recognised by a university as having academic merit and credit.

For my non-university colleagues let me just say that this is no small achievement, however we have a long way to go before WBL in its purest form is well established as everyday business.

I’ve been playing in the space where academia meets business in an attempt to make it easier for  learners, employers and universities to access higher level qualifications using the workplace as a site of learning. It is my passion and my ambition (indeed the title of my blog) that “The Twain SHALL Meet”.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning at the feet of  WBL legends  Professor David Young and Ann Minton (@annimint) who schooled me in the fine arts of WBL in higher education. The 3 of us spent many an hour discussing and writing about work-based learning,  we developed programmes for and with employers and employees and refined our practice over a few years. The experience for me was extremely exciting as it allowed me to be in an academic environment but close to business and therefore up-to-date and relevant.

Defining WBL 

We love a definition in academia, so in keeping with tradition there I have outlined a continuum of WBL.

  • learning through work – learning while working
  • learning for work – learning how to do new or existing things better
  • learning at work – learning that takes place in the workplace
  • learning from work – ‘curriculum’ that grows out of the experience of the learner, their work context and their community of practice.

    Adapted from Nixon et al (2006)

In traditional UG programmes one often finds WBL modules within a degree programme as part of the drive towards ‘experiential learning’, in most cases this is learning for work. In taught PG programmes WBL learning is often extolled as a virtue of the programme, however in practice this is often learning through work i.e. the learners take a series of pre-defined modules that, in some instances, allows them to use a project or scenario at work as part of the assessment process. There are clear benefits to both versions of WBL and many learners find the process of completing the project in a safe environment extremely beneficial.

Further along the continuum is WBL in its purest form namely ‘learning at work’ and ‘learning from work’.

The key principles of pure WBL is the recognition of informal learning and allowing learners to decide what they  learn, how they go about learning it and how they demonstrate their learning. The learners are involved in the planning, managing and driving forward of their learning. In essence they can decide how and what they learn from work. This is 70:20:10 years before it was common parlance!

The definitions may be extremely nuanced but the differences in approach and learner experience are fundamental. It is the difference between learning being learner led and the teacher sharing their knowledge of the subject, there is clearly a need for both however our access to knowledge knows no bounds and therefore WBL in universities should be in the ascendency.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Well that’s what I am looking to discover tomorrow at the conference. There have been huge changes in the last 5 years to the higher education market with more turmoil to come, yet the number of part-time learners and employer sponsored learners has never been lower.

Some questions for employers/part time learners

Why are enrolments to part-time programmes so low? Is it solely due to funding?

Are we in academia doing enough to make our programmes accessible and attractive to working people or are we stuck in an model that no longer works?

Would a negotiated curriculum be more attractive to employers?

I hope to come away from the conference with a clearer understanding of the following:

  •  The government’s agenda in relation to vocational skills, higher apprenticeships and funding of part-time UG and PG learning.
  • Current WBL practice within UK HEI’s and how they are dealing with Higher Apprenticeships.
  • The workforce development priorities for employer.

I will be blogging throughout the day and tweeting from @conmossy or @heswbl. The hashtag is #uvac2014, please join in the discussions.

I would love to hear from you and discuss work-based learning in more detail.

Skills and Employability- Andrew Battarbee

UVAC 2014- Skills and Employability- Why this agenda is of critical importance to the HE Sector

Andrew Battarbee, Deputy Director for Skills, BIS

The speaker introduced Andrew and apparently is a nice guy, very approachable and a friend of universities.

Andrew opened the session promising us that he will cover history, philosophy, business studies, geography and futurology. Intrigued!


Andrew also referenced the OECD report and confirms that England is an outlier in sub degree and really not comparative to Germanic countries, USA, Canada and Korea. Andrew gave an analogy of the England football team i.e. lots of running around and sweating without any real bite.

The legacy of this goes back to the Victorian era and then read some minutes from parliament in 1954…..very amusing but ultimately depressing in how we view technical and vocational career paths. Andrew suggested that there are some who believe it was wrong for polytechnics to become universities, he disagrees with this view but believes the polytechnics ‘left something’ behind.

The infrastructure and systems have enabled technical and vocational education to be forgotten about.


The system need to get behind better relationships between FE and HE with employers at the core, this can be done with Higher Apprenticeships and vocational degrees. Politicians need to forget about propagating parity of esteem between academic and vocational and get on with delivering the systems to deliver on action (my interpretation of what Andrew said).

Business Studies

Andrew gave us some statistics from technical industries and highlighted the fact that there was an impending crisis in terms of industries needing people with qualifications at Level 4 and above. He rolled off a litany of industries needing hundreds and thousands of technically able people.

Andrew challenged businesses to up their game and get engaged in taking control of their workforce development. They need to work smarter to develop apprenticeships fit for them and to engage with universities on negotiating bespoke solutions.


A short introduction on geography, he mentioned a devolution deal for Manchester on skills and allowing the city region to take control of local and regional needs. He expects this to be a repeated in other sectors albeit the impact may be indirect on universities.


Universities need to be more confident in what is right and wrong with the current system and use our influence to shape policy. Andrew summarised that whilst there is nuance between parties there is broad consensus on the industrial strategy and the importance of technical and vocational skills.

I was left encouraged by this talk and sensed an impending ‘tipping point’.

As a parent of 3 young kids I will certainly be supporting my kids following an alternative path!