British Prime Minister Seeks ‘Credible Alternative’ to Universities

Plan would boost technical education, seeking to reduce regional disparities in economic opportunity.

January 27, 2017

The British government has announced a 170 million pound ($213 million) series of prestigious Institutes of Technology are to be developed to offer a “credible alternative” to the academic route of university for young people.

As part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s industrial strategy unveiled this week, technical education will get a radical shake-up to “level the playing field” for those who do not go to university.

But questions have been raised about whether the money could be better spent strengthening ties between universities and existing technical colleges.

May’s industrial strategy is designed to boost the country’s productivity and improve living standards by balancing out regional disparities in growth. The government believes that education and skills are one of the biggest factors behind variations in productivity across Britain.

The prime minister was launching the strategy at a cabinet meeting and was expected to say that it would be a “critical part” of the plan for Britain after the country leaves the European Union.

“Our action will help ensure young people develop the skills they need to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. That means boosting technical education and ensuring we extend the same opportunity and respect we give university graduates to those people who pursue technical routes,” May’s prepared remarks said.

A senior government source reportedly said that May thought it was “unwise to force less academic pupils into the straitjacket of university, leaving them drowning in debt for the sake of a poor degree -- particularly when we have a chronic shortage of British plumbers and engineers.”

The new funding will be used to deliver higher-level technical education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics across the country. The new system will replace thousands of existing programs, many of which the government says are of low quality.

The institutes will offer 15 core technical routes that will give learners the chance to gain the skills that are in demand by local employers and will be tailored to the needs of regional industries.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, an association of universities, said that modern universities are “well placed to play a leading role” in the strategy, but she had reservations.

“At a time of major reductions in [further education] and local authority funding, questions also have to be asked as to whether the £170 million announced by the government would be better spent in promoting collaboration between universities and colleges which are already engaged in high-quality professional, technical and vocational education,” she said.

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