Back to the future

The government should revive the term ‘polytechnic’ says a report into the future of higher education in England published this month and large further education colleges which already have degree awarding powers should be eligible to apply for polytechnic status.

The title would be a “mark of vocational excellence” argues the Commission on the Future of Higher Education set up by the Institute of Public Policy Research think-tank a year ago.

The report goes on to say 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”.

A great case study in gap analysis.

In the developing market for Higher Education, the stampede has been to the top of the pyramid with “reputation and positioning” resting on being at a £9000 fee like everyone else, as if all participants can be premium priced and premium positioned at the same time!

In the process, a gap has opened up for specialist, high-quality, vocational provision at an affordable price – a space most Universities have vacated in their anxiety to be the same as each other (see most mission statements…)

This is a great opportunity for FE institutions to position themselves as 21st century polytechnics, defining what that means in today’s labour market and offering a real alternative to the “me-tooism” in the University sector.