Comment: More quality higher education options for young people

The University of Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir Keith Burnett, has suggested that today's young people need more quality higher education options. In the articles below, which have been published in the Telegraph, Sir Keith discusses the benefits of the quality advanced apprenticeships offered at the University’s AMRC Training Centre. He calls for a review of the options available to young people.

In March 2015, a national report co-authored by Sir Keith Burnett, called for higher quality apprenticeships, integration with university research and partnership with industry. The Future of Higher Vocational Education (PDF, 943KB) sets out a vision for “elite” vocational education in the UK in which high-quality apprenticeships achieve the same high-quality status as university degrees.

The cost of University education

Once upon a time, education was largely defined by affluence and birth. If you were really posh, you sent your kid to Eton and then he got into Christ Church, and then via some contact at Oxford got a nice high-paying job, possibly in the BBC or the Civil Service. If your kid was hopeless at school you used a contact to get him a job in the City. Some kids, heaven help them, had to go in the Armed Forces.

If you were not posh, say from a mining valley in South Wales (like my own family), and you passed your Eleven Plus exam, you perhaps went to the local grammar school. If you did well, from there you naturally went on to a job in a local bank or solicitors. Some very few might be clever enough to get a state scholarship to a university (maybe even a famous one) and become a teacher, doctor, solicitor or even (like me) a nuclear scientist. If so, the likelihood was that you would leave the mining village and never return.

But this was a rare occurrence. Most people were not posh, and most did not go to grammar school and most left education without many qualifications. It did not seem to matter so much in the boom after the war. There were lots of well paid jobs in industry, particularly in manufacturing. For those who took these jobs, there were other possibilities. Apprentices and company training, correspondence courses and progression to jobs which had not yet been ring-fenced for graduates. You did not need a degree to buy your own home, start a family, plan for the future.

Then the story changed to one of social ambition. Like the purchase of council houses, university became available to the many. The promise of a better life beckoned. Immigrant families – like the affectionately-spoofed Asian parent in the BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me – understood this only too well. They wanted access to the status which came from their sons and daughters becoming chartered professionals, doctors and lawyers. As well as a career, university seemed to offer guaranteed security and respectability. It was the gateway to class progression.

Everyone wanted in – politicians encouraged polytechnics to become universities. Vocational education and apprentices were seen as second class. Everyone now wanted the gentrified promise of Brideshead - or at least the cool lure of student life. Yet this very expansion changed the game.

When demand is high, supply will grow; and it did. That wasn’t a bad thing, because our economy was also growing and needed many of the skills that university can provide, particularly in new areas of technology. Yet as the supply of graduates started to meet the demand for them, the premium they could expect as a graduate began to come down relative to its post war boom time. This is natural.

When there were few graduates looking for jobs, their advantage was enormous. Companies who wanted to employ some of this clever, select pack went to great lengths to recruit them, offering incentives unimaginable today. When I graduated in the seventies with a degree in Physics, I was offered lucrative positions with promising career paths in both the Civil Service and a large commercial company.

So was born the graduate training route for almost all areas of our economy. This in time developed into the idea that you need to be a graduate to get on. Education and aspiration expanded. As it did so the premium on being a graduate dropped. What we now need to ask is: When does the premium drop so much that going to university is not worth the now significant amount of money you pay for it, even though this payment is deferred? How does a young person and their family make this judgment?

I think that this depends very much on the University and the nature of the degree. Effectively this is the first major investment decision of a young person’s life. Students need to make choices with their eyes open – which is a lot to ask for such a personal decision. The factors involved even in monetary assessments of investing in education to gain later salary advantage may be far more complex than they first appear, and still depend more on birth and connections than we often admit.

But there is a great big problem. What does “not going to University” mean today?

You know what it means, stupid. It means you have to admit that you didn’t go to university. And that seems to imply that you were in the group of have-nots who could not make the grade. It means that a family won’t have the graduation picture on the wall. It means staying at home when you could be having the time of your life, doesn’t it?

This used to be a completely ordinary, normal thing. But in the present generation it sounds somehow humiliating. Everybody goes to Uni these days, don’t they? Isn’t anything less failure? Don’t get me wrong. I see the tremendous advantages that higher education offers many young people. I was the boy who left the village for a university education which changed my life. I have given my career to university teaching and, later, university administration, and I have helped my own children through the system.

In spite of all the good I know a university education can offer, I think it is time for a genuinely critical review of what we need and why. Something needs to give. We need other options, more diversity...and, let’s be honest, quality.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

But I am not complacent. This new cultural expectation means we have created the killer product. And it ends up killing some of its customers. As universities compete for students and government counts as its biggest “asset” the student loan book, we might ask ourselves who or what is the consumer? Who or what is the product? Students and families make very far from free market choices, and universities and governments too easily consume the aspirations of young people – incentivised to calculate not price but entry tariff, driven by the possibility of private investment return and debt repayment.

All admit the current student loan system is unsustainable and, at some point in the near future, will be sold off with predictable consequences. We have been here before. In the US, Left and Right agree that a culture of student debt (already greater than car repayments and soon to overtake credit card debt) is a millstone around the neck of graduates for decades afterwards. Providing an alternative is an election issue.

What are the options? We could of course simply try to put back the clock. Recreate apprenticeships and the long-view employers who funded them. And we should certainly do that, for young people and our economy.

But what about the crux of the matter? Is there ever a time we should ask parents and families to be happy for their children to leave school and... find a good job? A place to live? To ask some young people themselves to say about university: “It is not for me. I will live life well without it.” To set aside the idea of live now, pay later. Hard to imagine isn’t it, because university for many is no longer a choice. You just can’t stop people going if they feel it is the sole route to success, however little they are likely to benefit.

So in spite of all the good I know a university education can offer, I think it is time for a genuinely critical review of what we need and why. Something needs to give. We need other options, more diversity instead of a pound store approach to higher education in which the stamp of graduation covers such a vast range of subjects and, let’s be honest, quality.

The economist John Kay says that the real challenge is to do what we are best at. It is no insult to say we are not all best at the same things, and a one size fits all approach to higher education does not serve either society or young people. If we want to indulge our desire for a place where a student can experience a right of passage, access to status or connections, then we might as well admit it. But we should also understand the cost.

Education is at its best an almost uniquely great good, but it is not a single product. And universities are no free market. To claim social salvation through higher education at the expense of future debt based on unrealistic promises may well prove to be no kindness at all.

What can we do to offer young people more options?

As Vice-Chancellor of a red brick university, and prior to that a teacher of Physics for over twenty years, I have more than a passing interest in education. In recent years, I have been increasingly worried about the wider picture of higher education.

It is not only my fears about the impact of increased tuition fees and student loans, and the marketisation of such a vital period in a young person's life - although I believe such large scale personal debt is deeply damaging and distorts decisions. I am in serious doubt about whether our current system gives young people what they need. \

When I wrote about this in the Telegraph, I said what I thought was important and was impressed to see how my thoughts struck a chord with readers of all ages. Teachers, parents and grandparents reflected serious doubts about the impact of student loans and graduate debt, and about the nature and quality of studies

Many agreed with me that there should be other possibilities.

How to prepare young people for the future is a serious challenge. If we get it wrong it is not only they who will suffer. I feel compelled to explain just why I feel such a deep conviction that we must not ignore this challenge - and what is already happening which shows how we might have a different future.

This came crashing home to me recently when I was visiting part of my University, which is an experimental 'skunk works' not only for advanced manufacturing research, but also for new models of higher education.

On the site of the former Orgreave coking works, once derelict land is now home to an extraordinary manufacturing collaboration between Sheffield University engineers and over 100 companies including Boeing and Rolls-Royce and their high-tech suppliers. In addition to the world's first fully reconfigurable factory - and centres of research on composite materials, engineering design, virtual reality prototyping and structural testing - is the Rolls-Royce single crystal blade factory for the superb Trent jet engine.

A top executive from global aero engine giant Rolls-Royce has given a ringing endorsement to a University of Sheffield initiative that gives young people cutting edge engineering skills.

But research and capital investment are not enough. Our partner companies told us that they faced a crisis in skills and they asked us to help. So began the most prestigious advanced manufacturing apprentice training centre in the UK, and some would say the world.

The young people there are truly inspirational. They take me back to my own roots in a mining valley in South Wales, and remind me of what my own father told me about technical and vocational skills - that it was not only British industry which suffered by separating out academia and the mind from making real things.

But this particular day was different. I looked onto the training floor and saw a group of young men wearing red t-shirts rather than the blue ones, which bear the logos of sponsoring companies and our university. When I went to talk to the small group working with one of our expert trainers, I found out that these young people were from local job centre. Being given a taste of this different kind of learning as a favour beyond our usual intake were NEETS - people not in employment, education or training. They were the 'lost boys' of our education system.

As we talked, the young men gathered around and showed me what they had been making. Each of them glowed. The pride as they demonstrated new knowledge and skills was palpable. The trainer confirmed to me how impressed he had been that every young person in the group was full of potential. He had given them a rigorous and testing challenge and all had succeeded, all wanted more.

Yet this handful of young men were only with us by chance, released for a short period into a world of new opportunity. How many more were sitting at home watching daytime TV, or would sign up for courses just to avoid unemployment? I was deeply struck by a sense of responsibility. We - educators and society - were letting these people down.

Anyone reading my concerns about our current university system and my concern about the value of some degrees who assumes my criticisms mean I believe opportunity should be decreased could not be more wrong. I don't want to narrow access to success from 50% to 20% simply to make it more affordable or to preserve the quality of the elite. I want to expand opportunity to the whole of our society, but in a way that meets real need head on and which is not afraid to rethink our approach.

My University in Sheffield was founded in large part by a public campaign. Posters in local factories listed the benefits of a university which would improve health, strengthen the economy and bring education within the reach of the child of the working man.

A hundred years later, I am proud that our university not only offers traditional degrees in subjects like medicine, engineering and law, but also now has 600 advanced apprentices. These students don't sign loan agreements, they go to job interviews with companies who are committed to funding their education and who know they will benefit from such superb skills. They are gaining qualifications and experience without debt. It is what I call access.

We need to challenge the fundamental misperception in society about the division between academic knowledge and applied learning which is deeply to our damage as individuals and society. We also desperately need a rebalanced economy with a thriving industry capable of making long-term investments in people, knowing they and we will need their skills to create a competitive edge for the UK.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

Yet this is not an easy route, nor is it cheap. Too many apprenticeships claimed by politicians are unworthy of that name. Our AMRC apprenticeships work in a world-class research environment and those who wish to progress onto a bespoke advanced manufacturing engineering apprentice degree can do so. We are piloting this new kind of degree with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and I feel sure that these graduates will deservedly become the industrial leaders of the future, not to mention vital to our economy.

Nor am I the only Vice-Chancellor thinking about how we could develop truly outstanding vocational education options. I have discussed next steps with my friend and colleague who is the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Cambridge and with the Heads of a number of Oxford Colleges. We have had support from a senior member of the Royal Family and I would love to see these pioneering young people become part of a Royal College of Apprentices, a badge which would convey achievement and status in one.

Is the rebalanced education system I am describing the whole answer? Not on its own. To be brutally honest, it is nothing like enough.

We need to challenge the fundamental misperception in society about the division between academic knowledge and applied learning which is deeply to our damage as individuals and society. We also desperately need a rebalanced economy with a thriving industry capable of making long-term investments in people, knowing they and we will need their skills to create a competitive edge for the UK. One which will see us restore jobs and industries, drive innovation, construct major infrastructure projects and export to the world.

AMRC Training Centre shop floor

What future do I want to see? One with diversity and quality, where students choose courses of study because they are right for their futures, whether traditional or apprenticeships, by dreaming spires or in local FE colleges. I want to see a system of funding not built on privatised debt. I want students to be able to earn and learn, or to choose positively to apply for a job with training in a thriving economy. The kind we need for Sheffield to be the engine room of the UK, the industrial heart of the Chancellor's promised Northern Powerhouse.
Should a Vice-Chancellor worry himself with such questions, with the nature of our economy or the aspiration of young people across the board?

I believe I must, but this is not only a matter for universities.

We haven't got things right yet, and we should not kid ourselves about that. Education is a great good, but not any education at any price. And we need to look beyond the borders of universities. There is no greater waste than lost potential in young people. No sadder story than that of the Lost Boys. We owe it to our students and apprentices, and to ourselves, to try to be part of building something better.