Is it time to put a touch of elitism into vocational training?
The concept of “learning a trade” has often fallen prey to snobbery in certain parts of society – but changing the language that we use to discuss it could make it more appealing
While a poorly thought through pre-election pledge has ensured that the Lib Dems have suffered the most political damage from the Coalition’s early move to increase university tuition fees, none of the main political parties are in any rush to make student funding a doorstep issue in 2015.
Mass-participation in higher education is embraced across the political spectrum, but money has to come from somewhere to pay for all of these extra students. The idea of taking that cash from general taxation seems to be off the table: those who have got on without having enjoyed the university experience are bound to resent subsidising those that do so. Meanwhile, alternatives such as a dedicated graduate tax have been shown to be flawed. It’s unlikely that any party will be able to go into the election promising to completely overhaul what remains an unpopular – if unavoidable – policy.
Allowing the educational fortunes of young adults to go unaddressed would, however, bring little reward, so small wonder Labour and the Conservatives have both sought to reframe the issue of post-compulsory education this week. Opposition leader Ed Miliband and Skills Minister Matthew Hancock both took to the stage of Tuesday’s Sutton Trust Higher Ambitions Summit to set out their respective visions for vocational education. For Miliband, this meant announcing plans for new technical degrees covering STEM and ICT skills, alongside “enhanced apprenticeships”. For Hancock, it meant emphasising the on-the-job aspect and employer input to apprenticeships. In reality, the differences between the two visions (if not the policy prescriptions) appear to be marginal.
There are sound economic and political reasons for both parties to occupy this terrain. Vocational skills are inextricably linked to the nation’s economic success, an issue on which significant credibility rests. They provide a vehicle through which to make eye-catching comparisons with other countries – as Miliband did with his comparison to the levels of vocational training in Germany – allowing for much excited “global race” rhetoric. And they carry a favourable whiff of social justice, addressing as they do the career opportunities of young people not usually found in the upper echelons of society.
That last point, though, brings with it some political risks. Both parties lay claim to the laudable objective of bringing parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. The reality is that skills training still carries the cultural baggage associated with “going into trade”. Political leaders do little to combat this when, however well intentioned, they use language that speaks of traditional academia as “not appropriate for all young people”. Many will instinctively feel that the well-heeled politicians do not include their own sons and daughters among this group.
It may be that giving vocational education a chance to get on a genuinely equal footing with academic study requires the complete removal of social justice rhetoric from the equation. Lessons could perhaps be learned from the way in which the UK’s science and research base is discussed. Ministers generally take to platforms to extol the world leading excellence of our research outputs, rather than celebrate it as an engine of social mobility. Indeed, the very mechanism used to allocate funding is called the “Research Excellence Framework.” This unashamedly elitist vocabulary may be hard headed and a little cold, but it might be the most effective way of shifting perceptions of vocational education away from it being seen as merely a way of giving opportunity to those that would otherwise have none.
Mark Fuller is associate director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications