Comment: Industrial strategy - stop polarising ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ students

As Prime-Minister Theresa May launches her new Industrial Strategy, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Professor Sir Keith Burnett reflects on how education needs to change if the UK is to succeed.

Industrial strategy: stop polarising ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ students

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 24.1.17, published in Times Higher Education

It is time, the PM is saying, for us to get to work. And it isn't just a question of rolling up our sleeves. However you voted in the referendum, it is clear that we are facing a momentous challenge as a nation. Can we make it on our own as a global trading nation and, if so, what will we trade? What will we make? Why should others choose to buy from us?

Some are taking inspiration from history in the nation which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. But heritage alone won't allow us to compete and win against Germany, South Korea, China and the U.S. Our industry and our country needs a new edge, and it won't happen by accident.

Thank God, our new Prime Minister is not someone who believes there is no role for government in this, and she's right. We will be competing and trading with nations who make far weaker distinctions between the national and private interests, and who actively nurture national industrial success as part of 'the defence of the realm'. If truth be told, we have decades of catching up to do compared to countries like Germany.

I say that we can, and must, put these things together have more apprentices and more engineers but without dividing them into different classes. We can individuals the chance to decide for themselves where their future lies.

Professor sir keith burnett

But we are making a start, and all agree that the preparation of people is every bit if not more important to our industrial future as the cost of land or investing in equipment. Which is why, as part of the modern industrial strategy being launched this morning, we'll be working anew on the education young people will need to be part of our future manufacturing capability.

There can be few more sacred duties than to give our children the right preparation for the challenges of life. You will note, I hope, that I have said education. Why didn't I use the word "skills" - isn't that what is missing from our schools and colleges? Isn't it the problem, that we valued 'academic' learning over the 'vocational'. Aren't we in a mess because we didn't train enough apprentices?

Tony Blair once quipped that you could bury any awful news simply by using the word 'skills' in an announcement. The real problem though was not the word, it was that we too often make a spurious split in the world by talking about skills, and the ‘vocational’ versus ‘academic’ worlds.

I have, in fact, spent a good deal of my time as an academic, and not just as a University Vice-Chancellor, trying to explain why this terminology - and the thinking which lies behind it - is so dangerous for our country. When we teach the whole range of knowhow that our children will need, we really mustn't make try to make two types of human beings. - those who work with their hands and others who work with their minds.

To help get rid of this false separation, let's think of subjects in which you wouldn't dream of making this false distinction. How's about a surgeon, an architect or a musician. All areas where hand and mind must work as one, where skills and insights mesh and open new possibilities. And one more that I know a lot about: the scientist.

When I did my training as an experimental physicist at Oxford I first finished my undergraduate degree and joined an experimental group in the Clarendon Laboratory. I quickly realised that if you want to make new and important studies of the world you have to be able to build new experimental rigs. You have to make a machine that no one has made before. It is the most wonderful of 'skills'.

So was trained to machine metals, to design electronic circuits, to understand the properties of materials and a lot more. I also learned how to make models of the things I was studying using a computer, and how to explain how what was going on to a sceptical audience. I needed to learn how to plan cost and get the funding for a project. And then I was fully trained and ready to run my own experimental group.

Now you might be thinking that this is very special and that only a scientist needs this sort of training. But you would be wrong. This is precisely what you need to be an engineer or a technologist working in modern industry.

Which brings me back to our Prime-Minister's Industrial Strategy. We know there is a great shortage of engineers and we also need to train more apprentices. That is true. But why do they have to be different types of people, one with greasy overalls and the other at a computer terminal?

I say that we can, and must, put these things together have more apprentices and more engineers but without dividing them into different classes. We can individuals the chance to decide for themselves where their future lies.

I know it works because that is exactly what we are doing at Sheffield, working with industry. Let me tell you how it all started.

Our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre works with over 100 companies in the aerospace, automotive and energy industries. It is cutting edge with with big name companies like Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Siemens. As well as our graduate engineers we needed more technicians for the very latest kit and so we trained some of our own specialist apprentices.

These apprentices were privileged. They were soaking up the processes that would be needed in the future of manufacturing and so we found we were training just the sort of people that our industry partners also wanted. They asked us not just for research but for some if these wonderful people. In fact, they would pay us to train the youngsters they would employ.

It was a new route for us or for any university like ours, but our home is in a place once known globally for the quality of its skilled trades, so we decided to train a much larger cohort. We set about building a training centre with the Government support and a new chapter opened.

One of the most important things in education at any level is that a trainee should be able to progress from the more straightforward to the more complex throughout their course. Students are be able to start with the things we can first teach in the laboratory and workshop and progress to making computer models of the manufacturing processes they are working on, all the time building with it the conceptual understanding of what they are learning and why it matters: hand (literal or mechanical) and mind united.

And now we have nearly six hundred apprentices who are doing just that.

The initial response to our work speaks volumes for British culture. Instead of applause I was first asked, why is a University like Sheffield getting involved with this low-level stuff?

But people then saw us take student apprentices from the estates of Sheffield and Rotherham and train them in the finest manufacturing centre in the world. They saw the enthusiastic response of local firms to these young people who could transform their productivity. The Director of Global Manufacturing at Rolls-Royce described these wholly educated young people as 'a new kind of engineer'. People changed their minds and became our supporters.

I have also seen transformed ability and aspirations. The first cohort are now starting their foundation degree course and will progress to manufacturing engineering courses as the years proceed. This means that we have student apprentices learning the skills of the future and able to choose their careers. They are not having a second-class education and don't have to choose a vocational 'alternative' - they are my students, they are at university and will, one day, graduate with a degree and as much pride as anyone else.

There is a difference though. These young people are sponsored by the companies who already employ them. They will graduate with a degree recognised around the world and years of industrial experience but no debt. And they will create wealth for themselves, their community and their country. I think all of us can raise a glass to that!