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Volume 771: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for a new generation of polytechnics to address the technical skills gap.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s review of post-16 education. In that context I propose the creation of a network of subregional polytechnics, specialising in levels 4, 5 and 6. That is the biggest gap between supply and needs in our education system. It was identified by Lord Dearing a long time ago and has grown gently worse since then. Our reorganisation of post-16 education provides us with an excellent chance to deal with it.

The polytechnic brand still has resonance. It is a good brand and it describes very well what these colleges would set out to do. Further education at the moment is a fragmented patchwork of too-small colleges, and clustering them under a polytechnic would make the whole system more powerful. It would allow the creation of specialist expertise and top-level facilities, and would provide organisations which are the right size to be responsive to big employers and to create the courses and facilities that they need. It would provide a framework of collaboration and coherence within which such things as the national colleges that the Government are creating would flourish. As a name and a concept it would carry much more prestige than further education does at the moment, to the benefits of its graduates and vocational education as a whole—and the system works well in Switzerland and Austria, so we shall have an example to follow whichever way we vote on 23 June.

I see polytechnics evolving from groups of colleges, creating a strong centre but with the teaching distributed—a lot of it virtual, some of it peripatetic—so that the original colleges remain focused on levels 2 and 3 but through this outreach from the polytechnic are able to offer polytechnic expertise to their students and to local SMEs. As I said, they would run relationships with large employers for the benefit of all the colleges that comprise them. They would focus on HNC and HND and on the qualifications underlying higher and degree apprenticeships, focusing very much on supplying what employers need.

That is a very different mission from that of universities. I do not see these organisations having any ambition to evolve into universities. In some ways, they are quite similar to the Government’s proposed institutes of technology but I see them as having a wider brief—all careers, not just technology careers. They would also have the advantage of having safer acronyms. I do not think that “Sheffield Polytechnic” would cause any problems. Polytechnics, as a concept, would be large enough to afford to be really good, and that is important in advancing further education as a whole.

As I said, I see polytechnics embracing the national college concept. We have two in existence at the moment, one of which is for high-speed rail. Why we are supporting Victorian technology rather than autonomous vehicles, I do not particularly understand—but at least we have nuclear, which is very much a technology of the future. To come, we have advanced manufacturing, wind energy, the creative industries, onshore oil and digital. Those sorts of centres of expertise would fit extremely well within a network of polytechnics because the polytechnics would already have, because they would need it, expertise in delivering high-quality, technical, employer-focused education. Embedding national colleges in the network of polytechnics would give coherence and scalability. It would mean that when you started with one college specialising in, say, 5G technology and it rapidly became apparent that you needed five of them spaced around the country, the structure would already be there in which to embed them. That is very much the pattern that the NHS uses for rare diseases and that I think is implicit in the hub and spoke proposals for national colleges. It would render them coherent and not another source of dissonance.

I see polytechnics as being intensely collaborative with each other, with colleges, with employers and with other education providers, and as having strong local connections. I see them not as national organisations, like universities, but essentially as local organisations. How would one create and enforce such a mission? I do not think that it could be done by representation. Some have proposed that the board should be made up of people from the colleges, the local community, industry and so on. We are hoping to create too many organisations with too many people and too many ways of collaboration for that to be anything but cumbersome and conflicting.

If you want a polytechnic to be run well, it has to have its own governing body focused on doing what it is supposed to do and doing it well, not for ever looking over its shoulder at a set of outside interests. I think that we can manage this through giving polytechnics a really strong statement of principles covering collaboration and covering what they are supposed to do, with an independent evaluation of how they are doing against those principles and a backstop of government control if they are failing. That will allow polytechnics, by and large, to remain where they are supposed to be and to be brought back into line if they fall out of it.

If we devolve levels 4, 5 and 6 to polytechnics, we leave behind levels 2 and 3 in the colleges. That is an essential local role but it is another area that is evolving. My noble friend Lord Baker, in the van as always, has his UTCs and career colleges. There are also studio schools. So we are looking at an area in the middle, or perhaps at the beginning, of a long period of improvement which will give us a system which is more diverse and responsive to people’s needs than we have at the moment.

A narrow education in the years from 16 to 19 is not suitable for anyone. We need all our young people to have breadth. We expect them in their lives to have to deal with career changes or becoming self-employed when they have accumulated obligations— families, caring responsibilities and other things which make basic education at that stage extremely difficult. We have to equip all our young people for the world as we expect it to be.

I very much look forward—later this month, I hope—to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, and Professor Wolf in this area. I hope that that will give us a direction that the Government will welcome. If they manage at the same time to row back from some of the weirdly narrow apprenticeships that the current system seems to be generating, that will also be welcome.

I see polytechnics as having a role in supporting schools. They will be centres of careers expertise. They will have to work very closely with local enterprise partnerships, and it may be that having one polytechnic per LEP will be a good pattern that reinforces the work already being done and the structures being develop by the Careers & Enterprise Company.

All in all, I think that developing a pattern of polytechnics would be an excellent outcome for the Government’s FE reforms. It is a direction long advocated by Edge, the FE “do tank” and is well supported by FE principals. I very much hope that it will find a place in government plans.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for raising this issue. The word “polytechnic”, or the concept, has come out in a number of our debates on education and skills over the past few years, so it is good that we now have an opportunity to debate it as an issue in its own right. I started at a different end from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in that I started in my thinking at the university end—partly because of the origins of the word “polytechnic”—but arrived at very much the same conclusions and very much support the thrust of what he said.

Because of that word “polytechnic”, it is worth stating that this is not about going back or reinventing something that was so wonderful that we should never have got rid of it. It is not about pretending that, when we had polytechnics—which is more than a quarter of a century ago now—skills and vocational education was brilliant and all the problems have resulted since. It was not like that. I want to put on record the advantages gained through the demise of polytechnics. I shall name just two or three. The fact that they could not award their own degrees was not right. The fact that they have now become expert in broadening access is wonderful. It has also enabled us to have more institutions of higher education in more geographical places around the country than might otherwise have been the case. That change, the abolition of the polytechnics and the end of that binary divide, was right and I welcomed it.

However, I am absolutely certain that we lost something, and it is those things that we lost that are worth grabbing out to see whether we can propel them forward a quarter of a century and find some use for. As the noble Lord mentioned, the move in 1992 was very much part of the expansion of higher education in its own right, and we have seen more full-time, three-year undergraduate courses and fewer courses at levels 4 and 5, which was the ambition of Lord Dearing when he set out his plans. We lost out there, we lost out on the notion of the sandwich course, which was very much part of the old polytechnics, and we lost out on the emphasis on learning through doing. A lot of the former polytechnics have, as new post-1992 universities, expanded what I might call classroom-bound courses because, for a polytechnic that became a university and wanted to expand, it was cheaper to put on a law, history or business course than it was to do vocational or skills courses, which are more expensive due to the nature of the equipment. That in some way accounts for the wrong skills mix that we inherit now. I want to hang on to what the polytechnics brought, even if it was a quarter of a century ago, as I still think there is a role for that in the sort of education system that we should be developing.

That would not be so bad if it was not on top of what we all know is a still deeply dysfunctional vocational and skills education programme in this country. Neither party has managed to get it right, although both have made valiant efforts. I like a lot of what the Government are doing at the moment, but none of us can ever pretend that it is not the weakest part of our education system. I do not want to list those weaknesses, but we are still blessed, or cursed, with a qualification system that no one understands, that changes rapidly and that is not the key to what it should be.

On top of that, in recent years we have had changes in the secondary school system that have emphasised a very much more academic curriculum, with the English baccalaureate, and downplayed the notion of vocational skills and learning through doing. Where we are now, I am not at all happy that we have got the building blocks in place in order to take us forward. That shows in quality, in the international comparisons of what we have at skill levels 3, 4 and 5, and in the preponderance of level 2s that we have in apprenticeships compared with level 3s. We are not doing as well as we should, and for all the efforts of people, we do not have the right building blocks in place.

It is worth mentioning that, when you compare that to the other route through the education system, the A-level route, it is almost not fair. It is not fair for the young people who want to take that route, it is not fair for the employers who need the skills that come out of that route and it is not fair for the country because it means that our productivity is low and our economy is not as strong as it should be. We know that we have coherence through the A-level route: it is a very easily understood qualification that does not change much over time, it leads to university and it has that rite of passage.

When polytechnics were abolished, I was head of sixth form at an inner-city comprehensive school in Coventry and I have two memories—one good and one bad—of the polytechnics. To be honest, the polytechnics were insurance applications for people who thought that they might not get into university. That was not right, and it is good that that is gone. However, the thing I remember with affection was the route through that they provided for some of my students who went through the BTEC, HNC and HND route straight to the polytechnic. That is the only time in all my memory of being involved in education when there was a cohesive, coherent route for those studying vocational qualifications from school, often through further education and then into higher education. I miss that. We have lost that, and we have never been able to recreate it.

My question in this debate is whether, in our wish to do better at vocational and skills education, polytechnics could play a role in that. For me, that is the simple question in this debate. I think they could, and for a number of reasons. We will have national colleges, we have institutes of technology and we have post-1992 universities that still have strong links with industry—Sunderland has excellent links with Nissan and Nottingham Trent still does sandwich courses on business. I know that we have those examples of good practice, but we do not have any coherence, cohesion or leadership at that level of this form of education. Quite simply, a new brand of polytechnics would provide that leadership. It would not just be good practice here and there but would provide a network of institutions to which we could look to lead the sort of change that we need to bring about. The trick will be in how much status we give these new polytechnics, and that is up to us almost as much as it is up to them.

We have two good examples—one in the early academies and the other in the Baker Dearing Educational Trust’s work with the university technical colleges—which prove that, if you take what seems to be something intractably problematic, put in the best skills and the most attention, give it resources and status and make it stand proud, you change the way in which others perceive it. That is what happened with the early academies and inner-city education: people all of a sudden wanted to go there to both study and work. In UTCs at their best, that is what happened with vocational education and skills education.

If we do that with a new range of polytechnics, we could build that centre of excellence and give it an important leadership role in the education system and the economy. One of the jobs I would give the polytechnics would be to lead on links with employers. I would want them to lead on experimenting with different patterns of higher education—not full-time, three-year degrees, but two years, one year, a sandwich course, a term off, a term back at work, people in work coming to learn or whatever it is. We are far too unimaginative with the higher education pattern and we could ask them to lead on that. I would like them to lead on making practical learning—learning through doing— something that is highly valued. I would want an accountability mechanism that rewarded them for doing those things and did not make them chase the research funding which they have to chase at the moment through the higher education system.

I finish by coming to the same conclusion as did the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that further education colleges will be key in this. They are different from what they were in the days of the old polytechnics. They offer degrees; they have bridging courses; they do years 1 and 2 of a degree course. Some sort of new sector that puts polytechnics and universities which want to play that role together with the colleges could be a good bridge between school and the world of work, and it could play an immensely valuable role in something which, for all our efforts, we have never yet got quite right.

My Lords, I should first say that I am chairman of the Edge Foundation, which is the largest educational charity in the country promoting practical, technical and hands-on learning. I am also chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which promotes university technical colleges. I draw no remuneration from either of those foundations. I warmly welcome what my noble friend Lord Lucas said. Few people in this House know as much about education as he does. His livelihood is from it and I welcome his enthusiasm for polytechnics.

I think I was the last Education Secretary who defended the difference between polytechnics and universities back in the 1980s. One of my less robust colleagues surrendered to the campaign to make them all universities. There was a big difference between them. There were wonderful polytechnics—some of them in those days were better than some of the new universities. Manchester Poly was a particularly great polytechnic and has now become a great university, Manchester Metropolitan University, but that is history; it has all happened.

Where do we stand now? As the noble Baroness has just said, about 50% of our youngsters now go to university, but what of the rest? The rest get a very raw deal. For example, only 10% in the 20 to 45 age range have reached level 4 and 5. Level 4 is HSE diploma; level 5 is foundation degree. That is the lowest level of any advanced economy in the world. America, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands are very much higher. As a result, we have a massive skills shortage. We are massively short of technicians and engineers, and we have this extraordinary phenomenon of people without jobs—500,000 youngsters are still unemployed—and jobs without people, with many of our companies having to go overseas to recruit skilled workers.

So where should it start? First, it has to start in the schools. I do not support the present policy of the Government of narrowing the curriculum and focusing on academic subjects. Most technical subjects are now thrust out of schools below 16; there are very few left. I introduced design and technology in the 1980s, a very popular course; for the past five years, the numbers of both GCSE and A-level entrants have dropped by 20% and 30% respectively. We are therefore seeing a whole host of youngsters who have had no practical experience of anything technical. This is unique in the world and highly damaging, so the Government should reintroduce technical subjects below 16.

Secondly, I would of course welcome the expansion of the UTC movement—14 to 18 year-old colleges. We have shown that 14 to 18 is a viable and very successful age range to focus on. We now have 10,000 students at UTCs. By September, with new ones opening, we will have 14,500. That seems a very large figure, but it is less than 1% of the cohort for that age group. What we are very proud of with UTCs is that when youngsters leave at 16 or 18, virtually no one joins the ranks of the unemployed. Last July, we reached 99.5% and virtually no school in the country can achieve that record.

The next stage is higher apprenticeships. Higher apprenticeships are apprenticeships at 18. They are now proving very popular, particularly with our colleges. At 18, if you have an A-level in, say, maths, physics or engineering—an academic subject—if you have a technical subject as well, such as a BTEC extended diploma, you are highly employable. Companies such as Rolls-Royce, National Grid or BAE will employ you at £15,000 or £16,000 a year and immediately put you through a foundation degree at their cost, so you can get a degree without any debt. If you are up to it, you can then go on to a part-time honours degree. We already have some students at Warwick doing that; they are gaining a second degree at no cost. Higher apprenticeships are very popular. But if this concentration on academic subjects between 16 and 18 continues, we will find that lots of 18 year-olds, with good academic results, are quite frankly not employable in companies because they have so little to give. It is only those who have some technical qualifications who are likely to be employed at 18 for higher apprenticeships.

Then there are the FE colleges. My noble friend Lord Lucas has mentioned those. They have 1.6 million students doing levels 2 and 3. Levels 2 and 3 are GCSE and advanced level. Only 2.4% of their students, however, get to level 4. That is an amazing failure because those are the jobs that are needed—levels 4, 5, 6 and 7 are needed more than levels 2 and 3. That, again, compares very badly with European performances. I therefore support very strongly the views put forward by my noble friend Lord Lucas to recreate polytechnics.

The polytechnics should prepare people for associate professional and technical jobs, but those should not be limited to the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. They should cover things such as catering and hospitality, digital skills, graphic design, business studies, logistics and others. We need a whole range of different subjects of that sort at a higher level of achievement than the FE colleges are offering at the moment.

As my noble friend said, the polytechnics would concentrate on levels 4, 5, 6 and 7. They would be for adults aged 19 and above, and every course should be linked very closely to the local labour market. One of the successes of UTCs is that companies support them very strongly and very generously. They create lessons for them in projects. Network Rail has lessons of eight weeks in level crossing gates. Level crossing gates and train sets are brought in by Network Rail to teach the students. Rolls-Royce has lessons of eight weeks in piston pumps, which its graduates and staff come in and teach. The students like talking to real businesspeople. For most children in schools, the only adults they talk to are their parents and occasionally teachers, whereas they like to talk to adults who have had actual business experience. Local companies should be very much involved in the polytechnics as well.

Most students will already be working in their chosen fields, so they will be part-time earning and learning. They should really have a level 3 qualification before they start. They will study part-time. It will have to be a much more modern institution than the old polytechnics. A lot of the teaching would be delivered remotely using videoconferencing and virtual reality. Students would travel to their polytechnic campus for team projects. Team working is essential: for youngsters to be work-ready, they should have these qualities. They should be able to do problem-solving, team working and be able to make things with their own hands. Those are the work-ready qualities that students at UTCs have. They must be offered on a much wider scale. They would go, as students, back to the campus for team projects, intensive tuition and access to high-cost capital equipment such as cutting-edge mechatronics.

I hope the Government will be sympathetic. I am quite sure that the Minister’s brief will not welcome polytechnics—I could have written it myself. They are already doing a bit, but it is only a bit. My noble friend Lord Lucas correctly said that there are now national colleges linked to certain industries. The one for railways and the other that he mentioned are operating; three more will start up. I find it extraordinary that there are just five for the whole country. I am not at all surprised that there is one for railways, which are now highly technical operations and not a Victorian steam engine sort of thing. We need them, but we need many more.

Then there are institutes of technology, which are much more modest operations. They are for levels 3, 4 and 5. I welcome that, and one is opening on digital skills, but the numbers are tiny. The Government say that the numbers will initially be small. They must be much more ambitious. They have to do something to help close the skills gap, and not rearrange the pieces on the board but find some new pieces that will be better than what they have.

I very much hope that this will happen. It is even more important that it happens quickly. The digital revolution is now happening. I am one of those who believe that the digital revolution, which covers everything from artificial intelligence to big data, driverless cars and lorries, drones and all of that area, will destroy many more jobs than it creates. In the past, industrial revolutions have always created more jobs than they have threatened. I made speeches on that when I was Minister for Information Technology. But I am now quite persuaded that the disruptive technologies of the digital revolution will destroy many other jobs. The Bank of England has already forecast that automation will cost 15 million jobs in this country. There are reports from McKinsey and Davos saying that it will be more than that. Faced with that, the Government have to improve skills training dramatically in our country. I hope that one way will be the re-establishment of polytechnics.

My Lords, I, too, wish to speak in this debate brought about by my noble friend Lord Lucas to support the new generation of, and commitment to, polytechnics and university training colleges, or UTCs, which my noble friend Lord Baker mentioned. They play their part in delivering new opportunities for young people embarking on their future career prospects, but I agree that there is still much more to do. I am pleased that the Government recognise that fact and are doing something about this situation; I declare my directorship of the Humber UTC, which opened nearly two years ago. It is an £11-million project and was spearheaded by my noble friend Lord Baker across the country to deliver more UTCs.

Colleges must have and develop strong links and association with industry leaders, as we have heard. I will focus on the engineering and renewable energy sectors, which must drive really skilled, technical and gifted individuals for the future. Those future engineers, as we all know, are much needed to bridge that skills gap, so it is important that we support bringing business and teachers together to work more closely. Teachers should also be encouraged to spend time in industry. I also agree that the engineering community should work with parents to promote engineering as a creative and exciting profession, not just for sons but for daughters, to help bridge that skills gap.

Economic growth is underpinned by technological innovation and a strong manufacturing sector. The UK can no longer afford to lag behind Europe, which has invested heavily in technical skills at the highest level for a very long time. We have continually to ensure that students are fully prepared with educational qualifications, including core GCSEs, added to transferrable skills suitable for the world of work or higher education. By introducing technical study and opportunities, students can work on real projects, and gain real work experience and, importantly, satisfaction. To that end, we need to convey the excitement, creativity and fun of engineering, and show how the world can open up for their careers. So, with the UTCs, which have an age range of 14 to 18 and have a strong link with universities, we must influence and encourage our young people effectively.

I wish to dispel the myth that engineering is a male profession. Although we can see a small increase in female employment and apprenticeships, females account for only about 9% of all engineering and technology employees. We have so much more to do on that when more than half the workforce are women. Humber UTC, situated on the south bank of the Humber between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, is going to play a huge part in establishing cluster sectors for renewables and engineering, giving young people the opportunity to experience engineering and renewables in the workplace and helping to inform their future careers, as I said earlier. What is important for them is to get not just a job but a highly skilled, well-paid job. Students at Humber UTC are guaranteed an interview and we have an offer of 15 apprenticeships each year from the UTC, so we hope that we can ensure a pipeline of highly technical individuals equipped to take their rightful place in the workforce of the future and challenge the world.

New polytechnics and UTCs will play their part in leadership. They will be key to that change and will, we hope, close the skills gap.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on introducing this debate. I will start by telling your Lordships that I went to a technical college, or polytechnic. It was Salford Technical College before it became a university—which tells you how ancient I am. In those days there were more than 100 technical colleges providing the kind of route that my noble friend Lady Morris described for non-academic young people such as me to train for work and to acquire specialist skills and knowledge. The cost was minimal and, yes, it helped me to get a good start in industry. As a preparation for a later career in your Lordships’ House it was perhaps less effective—but that is for another debate.

Your Lordships’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, reporting last month—and what a good report it is—made the point that the kind of non-academic, technical pathway that I enjoyed has been neglected and overlooked for years, leaving many young people struggling to find their way when they leave school, especially those who come from disadvantaged homes. Yes, there are FE colleges for full-time and part-time education, but they tend to concentrate on levels 2 and 3. The report describes the transition as complex and incoherent, with confusing incentives for both young people and employers. My noble friend Lady Morris mentioned this.

At first sight, bringing back old polytechnics could be an attractive way of making the transition. But that was then and this is now. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, told us that this is a time when robots, digitalisation and artificial intelligence are completely changing the nature of work: a time not only when manual jobs are changing but when professional jobs are being done by robots and thinking machines. In today’s world of work, this kind of transformation is happening not only in making and building things but also in services, in medicine, in accountancy, in management, in transport, in teaching, in communications and in customer services. I read somewhere that last year one-third of law graduates were working at menial jobs after graduating. At the same time the Royal Academy of Engineering tells us that we are short of 40,000 engineers each year. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, mentioned this mismatch.

Employers keep telling us that in this modern world of work we require lots more of the softer and wider skills such as learning how to solve problems, engaging with others, working together and having the resilience to cope with change—because that is the world of work that people are going to move into. Preparation for this transformed world of work is more fundamental than just learning a skill or mastering a technology; it involves being schooled in its new way of life. So what is the best preparation? I am not sure that it is technical colleges; I think that it is technical schools. We have to start earlier to prepare young people for this changing pattern. Because the Government now provide funds for innovation for new types of schools, schools are being introduced to address the situation, including studio schools, university technical colleges—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Baker—and specialist schools.

The noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, told us how well UTCs were working because the curriculum includes design and digital technology, electronics, IT and systems controls. These are being learned at school, not at technical college. The curriculum is designed to develop the human as well as the technical skills that pupils are going to need. As the noble Baroness told us, employers introduce projects into these schools. The universities mentor students to help them with the complexities of moving from school into working life, and they are prepared for working life because at UTCs pupils already do a full nine to five working day.

As the noble Baroness told us, this kind of curriculum and schooling produces a stream of young people who are welcomed to the world of work because they are more employable, better prepared—and better prepared to cope with the growing world of self-employment. I suggest that there is a lot more value for money in technical schools than in new technical colleges. I know that some of these schools have failed, especially studio schools, but that is what happens with innovation: some ideas succeed, some do not. Finding what works is never a straight path; sometimes you require trial and error. My view is that we should persevere with the technical schools and UTCs because they are beginning to show their worth and will deliver more value for money than new technical colleges—and that is from somebody who went to a technical college.

My Lords, I rise briefly to remind your Lordships of my experience from 1983 to 1992 in our former polytechnic sector. All the degrees in that sector were validated by the Council for National Academic Awards, upon which I was the sole representative of commerce, and of which I was the honorary treasurer from 1985 until it was wound up in 1992.

In those days, the CNAA and the polytechnics had responsibility to the Secretary of State for all our teacher training courses. When I managed to infiltrate myself on to the relevant committee, I was shocked to find that our mission statement was to “permeate the whole curriculum with issues of gender, race and class”. Perhaps that is where much of our political correctness comes from today. I was also shocked to find that, generally speaking, our social sciences departments were weak and dominated to an unhealthy extent by the serious left. For instance, we favoured external examiners in these soft subjects who declared on their CVs that they were Marxists. I fear that our students were given a very unbalanced education.

In 1992, the polytechnics were given their own royal charters, were thus miraculously turned into universities in their own right, and the CNAA was abolished. I have no idea how their social science departments have performed since, but I bet that some of them are still not much good today.

Our last polytechnic experiment in 1964 consisted of taking the former technical colleges, which were excellent, and bolting on the new poly departments, which were mostly not. One obvious problem was finding enough good-quality social science lecturers to come into the new system of 29 polytechnics. However, throughout the 28 years of that experiment, most of the technical departments—engineering and so on—managed to stick to their guns and offer their students a rigorous education. I imagine that many of them still do in their newish universities.

My plea to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the Government is to not make the same mistake again. If we need to address our technical skills gap—and we clearly do—please let us be wary of doing it through another polytechnic experiment. Let us do it through encouraging the best technic departments to expand and be emulated elsewhere. If necessary, let us set up new and prestigious technical colleges, if we can find enough good teachers—I nearly said lecturers, but they should of course also be teachers. We should not let these be compromised by weak social sciences in the same institutions. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on having this debate and on his introduction, which set the scene very well. He has sparked responses from a number of us who will, I think, follow him part of the way, if not all the way, to where he is trying to get. It was also clever of him to arrange the debate for last business on a relatively light day, so that we each have a bit of time to expand our ideas. Last time I stood at the Dispatch Box for a QSD I had one minute to encapsulate the entirety of the debate. I was then criticised, not by the Minister who is here today but by another Minister, for not expanding my speech, because I obviously had so much to say. I pointed out that I had had only a minute and she was appalled by that. It is a silly way of doing business; we did not do that today and we are all the better for it.

I should declare two interests. The first is that I have three children still—unbelievably, after all these years—doing higher education. One is an economist now and is going to be an accountant; one is still doing maths, I think; and the third is a girl, doing engineering. The words from the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, were very redolent. For your Lordships’ interest, I can tell you that my daughter started in a class of 150 people; there were 120 men and 30 women. There are now fewer than that—only 20 women left in year three of a four-year course. I think that she has had many of the experiences that the noble Baroness mentioned. It is still an important qualification and I am sure that she will survive and become a productive engineer at the end of it.

I also declare that I was, for 13 years, secretary and academic registrar of a polytechnic. It was not actually called a polytechnic until just after I left, ironically, because it was in Scotland—Napier College became a central institution which, although different in name, was really identical to the polytechnics in England. We had a range of higher national diplomas, which were gradually converted to CNAA-validated degrees. I am sorry that I did not run into the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, as I could have given him a run for his money on some of his thoughts on Marxism. The CNAA was not the body that he described—I think that it was a lot better than that, but we can discuss that later.

The key element of the courses that we offered—it was as true of the HNDs and HNCs as it was of the CNAA degrees—was that they were sandwich courses. A question that has come through today loud and clear is: what happened to sandwich courses? Thick and thin, it did not matter. Whatever the filling and whatever the size of the sandwich, they were good things. They were consumed avidly by students—my metaphor is going to run out but I will carry on a little further. The great thing for me observing it all was that the nature of the student experience changed as they went out into the street and then came back. In other words, they went out after a year or 18 months within the college and, when they came back having had industrial placements, they were different. They had motivation, they had commitment and they did much better in terms of student activity.

Like my noble friend Lady Morris, I think that we lost a great deal when the binary divide was abolished—the regionality, the vocational routes, the sandwich elements. One thing that I do not think anyone has mentioned but which was important is that we always felt proud of the fact that every student was taught in our institution by a trained teacher. In other words, the FE ethic—which carried forward into the polytechnics—that teachers were teachers and not just lecturers was put into practice by making sure that they all had a course of teacher training, which was very valuable.

This Question is narrowly focused on the need to get support for,

“a new generation of polytechnics to address the technical skills gap”.

It needs a bit of unpicking, as a number of noble Lords have said. We should remember that when the polytechnics emerged in the 1960s there was a national admissions system and a national grant system, ensuring that we enjoyed not only world-class universities but a world-class university system. It is important to point out the difference between the institutions and the system within which they operated, very much under the control and guidance of the department and the Ministers concerned. It was sad to see the further decline of our universities in the rankings, published in the papers today, both in terms of numbers and the rankings they occupy. Perhaps the Minister might comment on that when she replies.

We are having this debate in the context of the possibility of there being a higher education Bill. It has been widely trailed as possibly being in the Queen’s Speech due to come to this House in a couple of weeks’ time. I hope, therefore, that some of the points raised here might be brought through into that debate. It is important that we get our principles right. We have an academic tradition, as I mentioned, but we are also living, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, in a world that is very different, a world that is turning east, where technology is moving faster than ever and we in Britain need new answers to help us collectively earn our way to a better standard of living.

In a country where our living standards are under such acute pressure and the deficit still looms so large, innovation is really the only route we can possibly plot out of austerity. We need a high-productivity, high-skilled, innovation-led economy. That is why our universities and higher education institutions are so important. They are the powerhouses of the knowledge economy. They need to be bigger, stronger and more central to our economy in the years to come. Britain needs to put science and innovation at the heart of a strategy for long-term economic growth. Unless we grow smarter, we will grow poorer.

The first principle we should bear in mind is financial sustainability. We need good research and good teaching, which need good and sure foundations. I do not think that the current student loan system, which is effectively a voucher system that pays for all our universities and, indeed, part of their research, is going to work. It does not pass the test or take the trick. It is storing up debts of perhaps £80 billion or £90 billion—a fiscal drag that will not be repaid. It is now as expensive to operate as it was when students were being charged a third as much. I do not think it is sustainable. I would welcome a comment from the Minister about whether this will continue in her long-term thinking.

The second test is: what is good for our science base, our store of knowledge and wisdom, is good for the country. Whatever is proposed for the future must pass that simple judgment: is it good or bad for science? While other powers, emerging and established, are investing in science like never before, we are cutting science spending across government with the current cash cap system, according to the Campaign for Science and Engineering. We really must rethink this. If we do not have the R&D spend, we will not have the science or the opportunities for young people to get involved in it, and we will be the losers. What are the Government’s plans to try to redress that balance?

The third test is student choice. Are we really offering students a sufficient, real choice of pathways to higher-level skills? We do a decent job of getting A-level and, in Scotland, Higher students on to an academic route to university, but we do a terrible job on apprenticeships. We certainly have yet to crack the problem of how to produce a degree-level route for those people. It may be that the new Institute for Apprenticeships will help but it is unclear because we have yet to hear much detail about it. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give us a bit more when she responds.

For example, firms such as Rolls-Royce train 50% of their apprentices to degree-level skills but we as a country manage just 6% overall. This is not right and must change. We must do more for both the individuals and the country. It will be a much bigger task than simply addressing individual points. We need to think about credit accumulation so that people can get moving between institutions, if that is what they want. We have to reform FE, as a number of noble Lords have said, as a second-chance alternative for those who missed out when leaving school, but also to continue the good work at levels 2 and 3 and sometimes 4 and 5 that FE colleges do. UTCs, which we have been talking about, offer so much but they need scale and we need to support them as much as we can. We need to reverse completely the collapse in the number of part-time students and the course provision for part-timers, which has been so starkly brought out in the past couple of years, mainly because of the changes to fees. That is a tragedy for many people and a disaster for the economy.

However, this is really mainly about my fourth principle: the skills base. We have regional skills gaps opening up and we must have a bigger conversation about what we really mean to do about them. Simply calling for a new class of institution will not do it. Education for education’s sake is an important part of what we have always held and cherished in our country, but a good job is fundamental to the way in which we can live our lives and the paradigm that we must live them under. Right now, half our graduates are not in graduate-level jobs. How did that happen, and is there any way in which we might get ourselves out of it?

As I said, institutions might be an answer to that, but it is more about a determination, as many noble Lords have said, to fix this long-running problem which we have with vocational courses. In this country we still think that vocationality is somehow second class. We have to change that culture. We still have to turn engineering away from being a male profession to being the envy of all the courses that people could do, because it provides brilliant jobs and of course helps with our economy. We have to ensure integrated transferability across the sectors and must make sure that funding will enable policy changes to be made, not just be responsive to students.

Finally in this list of woes—the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said this first but I want to repeat it—it all starts in the school. If we do not get the schools right, we will never have that spark in the pupils who are coming forward. It will not happen unless properly trained STEM teachers are used. We have to rework the curriculum.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the soil in which the root of our education system feeds is really teacher training, and that then you get to the schools—the primary schools and so on, all the way up?

I can agree with the noble Lord on this point. Teacher training is the key to it but it has to start with primary education.

My time is running out. I would like to go on about social mobility and other points but I will end with just one thought. Perhaps the Minister could respond to this. In a speech today, the director-general of the CBI covered a range of issues on which she felt that the Government could do more in terms of an industrial policy. This is outside the brief of this debate but she mentioned in particular the need to get a grip on skills strategy. She called for an ambition that she says she has not seen yet in government. When the Minister comes to respond, can she tell us what that ambition is and whether it really exists within the Government today?

My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate and am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for initiating it and to all those who have contributed. The debate has been extremely interesting and is very timely. First, it follows the excellent report by the Social Mobility Committee that was led by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, was also a member of that committee, which made a strong case that improved technical education could be a powerful tool to create opportunities for the most disadvantaged young people in our country—a point made again during today’s discussion by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Secondly, the Government have made clear their view that our technical education system needs to improve significantly to meet the challenges we face in ensuring that we have a highly skilled and competitive workforce. Again, all noble Lords speaking today have highlighted this issue.

There is real excellence but the system is confusing, sometimes lacking in quality and too often divorced from the workplace. We accept the analysis of the OECD that our tertiary education system does not produce enough people with technical and professional qualifications specifically designed to meet labour market needs. Fewer than 10% of our tertiary-level students are studying non-degree technical courses, which is well below international norms. But while we continue to face challenges, steady progress is being made through the system.

At school level, as my noble friends Lord Baker and Lady Redfern and the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Stevenson, all pointed out, UTCs are starting to make a difference. The 59 UTCs open or in development will create opportunities for more than 35,000 young people to integrate academic study with real, practical learning within a high-quality technical and professional curriculum. This offers young people a choice and we are committed to ensuring that there is a UTC within the reach of every city.

Our new careers and enterprise company is also supporting greater engagement between employers, schools and colleges. We want to ensure that all young people have access to the broadest careers advice, so that they are aware of all the opportunities open to them—academic, vocational or directly into employment —and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, says, no route is considered second class.

In the last Parliament, we supported more than 2 million apprenticeship starts, while at the same time creating clearer and more rigorous standards for what an apprenticeship should be. We removed thousands of vocational qualifications from the scope of funding and recognition in league tables because they did not offer adequate progression for learners. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and my noble friend Lord Baker, also talked about the importance of encouraging level 3 and above skills training. To that end, we have introduced apprenticeships at those levels, and higher apprenticeships are being delivered, with nearly 20,000 starts in the 2014-15 academic year. We are working with employers and universities to further develop degree apprenticeships, which will allow individuals to study for a degree while progressing in their careers.

From September, we are introducing loans for learners studying high-level technical programmes in further education. The Government accept that there is further to go, which is why, last October, the Minister for Skills invited the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, to review the state of technical education in this country. The noble Lord’s interest and expertise in this subject is well known, and he has put together an expert panel to reflect the views of employers, universities and FE colleges. The panel has consulted widely.

Although I am afraid I cannot provide details today and let the cat out of the bag, I can say that the review is of the quality one would expect from a panel chaired by the noble Lord. It has not been shy about being clear about what the problems in the system are and has specific, clear proposals for change. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that one of the focuses of his work is how we bring coherence to leadership in technical education going forward. We will publish the report alongside the Government’s response in due course.

We need a technical education system in which businesses and colleges work closely together with political support from all sides. When we publish our plans for vocational education reform, we will do so in the spirit of consensus. We want to seek the widest possible support for this. As we have heard today, I think everyone agrees on the challenges and on the need to make sure we get this right and that the worlds of business and education come together.

The core theme of today’s debate is the institutions for advanced technical education. Broadly, this Government take the view that at present we do not have the right pattern of institutions to teach high-level technical education programmes at the level we all want to see. We have a very diverse university system, which is a source of strength despite the rankings that one noble Lord referred to today. We have universities and courses with strong vocational offers—whether in the ancient vocational disciplines of law and medicine or in more contemporary fields—but the focus of universities is inevitably on providing full undergraduate academic degrees and postgraduate qualifications.

As we have heard, further education colleges have long had twin purposes: to provide advanced education for the workplace and to provide second chances to adults who had not mastered the most basic skills. Both matter, but the system has become too weighted towards the second—important though that undoubtedly is—and away from the first. We need to rebalance the system so that we have the right level of technical provision. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is not about going back to the past but about learning from the strengths of what we had in order to build on that going forward. That is why we are supporting two new types of institution.

First, there are national colleges, which a number of noble Lords mentioned. These will be specialist providers of education in key technical disciplines, which will help ensure the UK has the skills to support the delivery of major infrastructure projects. We have already announced support for national colleges in the areas of high-speed rail, digital skills, nuclear, the creative and cultural industries, and onshore oil and gas. The first national college students will start their programme in September, and by 2020 we expect the colleges to be delivering to around 21,000 learners.

We are also supporting the new institutes of technology to provide high-level technical education across a range of disciplines at local level. To create these, we will invest in the best FE colleges to equip them to provide the quality and volume of education that are needed to produce a highly skilled and productive technical workforce. We will work with local government and businesses through the current area review of colleges to identify the best local option for an institute of technology. These institutes will have an important role, linking up other providers, including FE and sixth-form colleges, the national colleges and UTCs, as part of a system of professional and technical routes from education into employment. This new approach to technical education draws on the strengths of the past, to which noble Lords alluded, including the polytechnics, but with modern, focused organisations that will be able to deliver the high-quality technical skills that we in this country need to compete effectively in future.