Comment: Technically speaking, we'll do level best to support new skilled T Levels

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, welcomes the boost for technical education and writes about the life-changing apprenticeships on offer at the University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) following Chancellor Philip Hammond's announcement of T Levels.

Technically speaking, we’ll do level best to support new skilled T Levels

By Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 16.3.17, published in the Sheffield Telegraph

Last week was National Apprenticeship Week and we had a proud new announcement from our Chancellor Philip Hammond – the introduction of T Levels, a new set of secondary qualifications that are as well regarded as our current educational gold standard of A Levels.

We know that in a post-Brexit world the UK needs a higher-skilled workforce and a proper route for technical education, so many will say it is about time. But will the day come that parents are just as proud that their son or daughter has earned three As at T Level? Or is this just a different way to give lower standards of education to the less bright kids from working class backgrounds?

Here in the Sheffield City Region, we are already proving the answer to this is no.

For many years now at the University of Sheffield, we have shown with our post-16 Apprentice Programme based in our Advanced Manufacturing campus that we can have the very highest levels of attainment for what people sometimes call technical or vocational education. And this is no apartheid system for those who cannot achieve academically.

We already have 600 advanced apprentices, young men and women from the region, sponsored by industry studying at our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Training Centre. The first of these are now beginning foundation degrees, all within perhaps the most advanced industrial research centre in the world.

We need to challenge the fundamental misperception in society about the division between academic knowledge and applied learning.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett


Our apprenticeships offer a route into degrees and higher degrees. Each apprentice is already employed by a company but also accessing a world-class education. Their families rightly feel deep pride in their achievements. And they finish with an education, years of employment history and no debt.

They are being trained in an advanced environment where planes, trains and supercars are designed and built. The latest of these apprentices are sponsored by McLaren Automotive as part of the company’s collaboration with the University and its decision to therefore move production to our region.

But I think we can go further. As someone who studied years ago at a Grammar-Technical school and as a scientist who has seen at first hand the importance of world-leading innovation and technical skills, I am committed to us leading the way on this area nationally and internationally.

We can also see the powerful impact this approach has on our economy. Companies relocate to be close to the combination of research and a new human source of technical expertise. Announcements of such investors include McLaren Automotive and Boeing to the Sheffield City Region in the last month alone.

This further proves areas such as Sheffield could play a crucial role in a new industrial revolution for the UK, one centred on science and innovation working hand in hand with industry. Post-Brexit, we can only go out into the world if we have something the world needs. And we do. I am deeply proud that Boeing, McLaren and Rolls-Royce recognise that Made in Sheffield is a hallmark of quality for more than cutlery.

McLarenInvestment in apprenticeships and skills can create capacity for companies to grow, for others to move to the UK or re-shore production. But only if the quality is right, and only if the apprentices are part of a wider system of industrial partnership using the very latest technologies. If all we do is create a track leading nowhere or, worse still, replace existing jobs or graduate opportunities with a cynical take on cheap labour, we have solved nothing.

I am thinking hard and talking to industry about how we might expand this provision which we know is life-changing for young people but also transforms our economy. I am convinced that our University working with industry, local colleges and schools has even more to offer. We have everything to gain as we work together.

So I know it can be done and that is what we must make sure the new T Levels deliver - a new route to the top for those who want to start their education in ways that more clearly relate to the science and technology of the future.

We need to challenge the fundamental misperception in society about the division between academic knowledge and applied learning.

The apprenticeships at the AMRC Training Centre are not a second-class option for those not smart enough to make it to university. They are another route into engineering which our country desperately needs, and industry knows it. The companies that lead the world based on their technological know-how understand that these people – immersed in a research-rich value chain of productivity – are the real secret to future success. They will need apprentices with the skills of the future, and they will pay to create and keep them.

So as we set up the T Levels, I have a plea. Let's not separate people into different types.

We need to let young people develop the vital skills they need to succeed more easily. For those who study T Levels it must mean a route to success in any future they want. Their and our future depends upon it.

Ian Hutchinson talks about his new role as the first McLaren Automotive apprentice at the AMRC