Technical Degrees? Deja vu!

Ed Milliband re-launches the plea for vocational training, newly re-branded as “technical degrees”. In principle I am all in favour. The British vocational training system is appalling and something needs to be done about it. A few concerns though:

  • To which extent this idea will be a true innovation, rather than re-heating the same old soup? I am slightly perplexed. The revision of the vocational system promoted through the 1990s did not lead to any good. NVQs deliver qualifications not recognised by the labour market and the return on investment of such qualifications is short-termed and very low. Continous revisions to them system cannot but do worse as the labour market becomes suspicious about degrees that are not known and are not tested long enough to provide any sort of information on the skills delivered.
  • The common denominator between Italy (my home country) and the UK is poor vocational training. Yet, the two education systems could not be more different. So, to which extent can the two countries say: “We want to import the German model”? The dual-system that works so well in Germany might not have an easy life in either Italy and the UK, if not adapted to their specific environments (and that is where the problems start!). Besides, the vocational system in Germany works very well because it is linked to a sound apprenticeship scheme, where all the stakeholders have a say. Is there fertile ground to do the same in the UK? Social dialogue in Italy and the UK is very different from social dialogue in Germany; the corporatist approach promoted in the German way to negotiate across social stakeholders is unknown territory in the Italian and Anglosaxon cultures.
  • The reform introduced to the HE and FE system in the UK from the 1990s transformed good polytechnics in bad universities. Now it seems that we want to reverse back praising the value of proper vocational education. To which extent will this be a return to polytechnics? In other words: who is going to produce these technical degrees?
  • What will be the implications for Universities? We (sadly) spent the past few years scrapping the idea of ‘knowledge’ to substitute that with the mission of delivering ‘skills’. So now we will have ‘skills’ delivered by university institutions and “technical degrees”. What will be the difference? Will this change generate more competition or less competition in the tertiary education sector?
  • Finally, my thoughts go to the poor employability officers scattered around HE institutions in the UK. How will they assess, design, and promote the ‘new’ skills generated by technical degrees? How will they market them and differentiate them from the regular degrees? (Good luck guys!)

There is no doubt that the British education system needs to address issues related to vocational training and unskilled unemployment. Perhaps, rather than adding new degrees to a newly re-reformed (and already distressed) HE system, we should find the courage to go back to the old: polytechnics that worked very well and produced skills relevant for the labour market.

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