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University Technical Colleges show promise despite recruitment challenges

The UK must create greater opportunities for the "forgotten 50 percent" of young people who do not wish to follow a traditional academic route, the Labour leader Ed Miliband has said.

It is a theme that is expected to re-emerge at the Labour Party's annual conference in Manchester, which begins on Sunday. Liam Byrne, the shadow universities minister, has already outlined his ideas in a Social Market Foundation pamphlet Robbins Rebooted (see HEi-know Briefing Report 188). 

Labour's plans for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, should they win the General Election, include a technical baccalaureate for 16- to 19-year-olds and new technical degrees. Such
programmes, Miliband said, would better meet future business needs, enabling the UK to "compete with the rest of the world on quality, innovation, science and skills."

The Labour party has also pledged to open a further 100 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) if it takes power in the next parliament.

It is a potentially controversial move, even though UTCs have been providing technical education for 14- to 18-year-olds since 2010. They currently number 17, with a further 33 in the pipeline. Each specialises in an area of local industry, most notably advanced engineering. And, while many are oversubscribed, a few UTCs are struggling – including the flagship Hackney UTC in east London which, on 9 July, announced that it will close in 2015.

The idea for UTCs came from former education secretary Lord Baker who, together with Lord Dearing, "spotted the colossal gap that has existed since the 1960s, when our technical schools were dispensed with," says Charles Parker, CEO of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust that develops and promotes UTCs.

Run in partnership with local businesses and at least one university, UTCs aim to fill that void, delivering both strong academic and targeted practical education. Under-16s spend 60 percent of their time following the
National Curriculum, and 40 percent gaining sector-specific training in industries in which there is a local lack of provision. As a UTC day is typically 8am to 5pm, compared to 9am to 3pm in the mainstream, this means
a similar amount of time is dedicated to non-technical study in each setting – so younger students are not narrowing their options by attending a UTC. For 16- to 18-year-olds, the ratio is reversed, with 60 percent of
students' time focused on technical education.


Liam Byrne - call for more technical degrees

Humber UTC is due to open in September 2015 and will focus on engineering and renewable energy. "We have worked closely with employer partners to shape the curriculum," explains Michelle Watson from the University of Hull. Once up and running, "students will work on projects linked to real work in companies and research being carried out by the university."

"UTC students get 'add-ons', and there is a practical application of core subjects," explains Martin Howarth of Sheffield Hallam University, a partner in Sheffield UTC. This college opened in 2013 with two specialisms: creative media, art and design; and engineering and technology.

The longer hours also serve to create a business-like environment, re-enforced by a strict dress code and an expectation that students will manage their own time and projects.

"UTC students approach education as employees, not pupils," says David Hornby, an academic at Sheffield University who is on secondment at UTC Liverpool, which specialises in life sciences. "Projects tend to be open-ended, and that is generating high levels of self esteem and confidence in students."

Gaining hand-on on experience in labs Hornby deems "better than most undergraduate labs," Year 10 UTC students are attempting projects "I couldn't conceive of third year undergraduates trying, because degree courses are so structured and formulaic", he said. Because of this – just a year after UTC Liverpool opened – "We're having conversations about kids potentially entering university life science courses directly into the second year."

For Hornby, the need for UTCs is clear; he believes the UK’s school-to-university route for science is not fit for purpose.

"I've no idea why they teach what they teach in the mainstream. There's a gap between National Curriculum education in chemistry, physics, biology, maths and what's needed for a career in science. UTCs try to bridge that. My students trouble-shoot, solve problems and approach science in a way that I would expect a PhD student to. Alongside that, they'll have GCSEs and A-levels. We don't yet know how this style of learning will impact on their ability in exams," he admits, "but there's no correlation, in my view, between being a good scientist and having good A-level results."

This new model of education should also benefit industry, says Michelle Watson at Hull.

"UTC students learn through practice and build relationships with local employers. It is a different route – and a welcome one. We hope progressing from the UTC to University will be more likely to find employment in local
industry when they graduate."

"Businesses are looking for people who arrive able to do the job," agrees Dr Ilias Oraifige from the University of Derby, which is linked with the forthcoming Derby Manufacturing UTC. "At the moment, graduates often have
to go through in-house training. UTC students may have an advantage."

Higher education could benefit too, with UTC graduates that choose to continue their studies being "that bit more prepared," says Parker. Perhaps for this reason, universities have been very supportive, he notes.

"By working closely together on the Humber UTC, the university is strengthening its links with local employers," adds Watson, highlighting a more immediate outcome. "We already work together on research, and one key
partner is keen to start recruiting graduates from the University of Hull."

For students, the benefits are many – including, at Humber UTC, a guaranteed job interview with one of the employer partners or a conditional offer to study engineering at the University of Hull at the end of their

And UTCs may specifically open doors for female students, suggests Aaron Porter, Director of External Affairs for the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB). "A lot of the issues around getting women
into engineering and manufacturing have their genesis in education. Because UTCs are engaging with people earlier, the preconceptions about what's a 'guys' career and what's a 'girls' career aren't so entrenched."

But there are challenges – notably in student recruitment. "We're new provision, coming into a very rigid system, and making life even harder for itself by recruiting at the non-standard age of 14," accepts Parker. "Our
schools have no track record, often no building before opening, a principal who's never done any recruiting, and they are doing a different curriculum."

This is the heart of Hackney UTCs downfall, says its Chair of Governors, Anthony Painter. “It has become clear that provision commencing in Year 10 rather than Year 12 does not fit well in local circumstances unique to this
project, where students are unlikely to change course until sixth form, resulting in unviable student numbers," he said. The school received just 29 applications this year of a targeted 75, following a critical Ofsted
report in February and the sudden departure of its principal shortly afterwards.

Others are also struggling. The 150-pupil Central Bedfordshire UTC was only 30 per cent full for 2012/13, and the 480-pupil Black Country UTC has just 36 per cent capacity and 'requires improvement', according to its
Ofsted inspection in March. Central Bedfordshire UTC, meanwhile, was branded inadequate, prompting Education Secretary Michael Gove to ask nearby Bedford College to take over.

These are exceptions, says Parker, who points out that, overall, UTCs nationwide were 70 percent full last year, with figures looking even better this year. "This is a long-term solution to a long-term problem.
It's tough to start with, but we've got the right product."

Those that criticise UK education for specialising too early may disagree. Our A-levels cover fewer subjects than the International Baccalaureate, and our degree programmes are narrow compared to the American Liberal Arts and Liberal Sciences models. According to Porter, "There's good evidence to suggest that employers aren't looking for expert technical knowledge in a specific field as much as adaptability. Perhaps they're most interested in interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary approaches. Some attributes UTCs foster – like work-readiness and trying to address skills shortages – are good. But it might not be a model that can be applied across all areas of the economy."

That said, existing UTCs are, on the whole, doing well. "Student feedback is jolly positive," Parker says. "And of our two sets of school-leavers, not one was a NEET. They all went on to apprenticeships, HE, college or
work. That's fantastic – but actually, that's what you would expect. This is happening because it's necessary," he concludes. "However good, bad or indifferent the local school system is, employers and universities say it
isn't giving them what they need".

This article was originally published by HEi-know on 16 July