As Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University, founded a century ago by local people determined that their industrial city should put the highest quality education ‘within the reach of the child of the working man’, I have more than a passing interest in whether or not my university can still claim to be delivering on this promise.
I am also a Vice-Chancellor at a time of major change in UK higher education. We are living through an era in which half of school-leavers are heading for university, and paying a heavy price for the privilege. Increasingly, university is marketised and education is defined as a private investment in which young people are drawn to status and brand. Families believe a conventional university degree is the only gateway to future success, while at the same time the decision to triple tuition fees means that they worry about how they will bear the cost. On top of this, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union will have profound effects on higher education, some of which are already being felt, and some which will take years to manifest.
But are we really giving the young what they need? And what about the country as it charts its own path outside the European Union? What about those who are bright and full of promise but who come from backgrounds where taking on the scale of debt now associated with university is unthinkable? What about the other 50 per cent? I worry about these issues, and I think we all should. I am not just a Vice-Chancellor. I am also a parent. I have extended family members in the deprived former mining valleys of South Wales. And I am a teacher. I care what we teach, that it is the right thing.
Throughout my career teaching Physics in the US, at Imperial College in London and then for two decades at the University of Oxford (where I had myself been a student fully-funded by a very different system), I have been privileged to work with many remarkable young people. I have seen first-hand how university can and does change lives. I would do all in my power to preserve that.
But I am no conservationist of a university system for its own sake. If we are to deliver what is needed, we must be prepared to think about what is required now. We must not offer a cheap and inadequate alternative to young people who were not fortunate enough to begin their lives in schools or families able to smooth their paths to the best universities, or to financially support them as they took opportunities to enter careers that all-too-often require significant amounts of money as well as talent.
This chapter describes what it takes to create a new kind of apprenticeship that meets the needs of industry, offers real access and opens up a world of possibility to those ill-served by traditional higher education. It argues that the answer lies in encouraging research-intensive universities to take a new approach to vocational education and how they work with companies.
Orgreave and beyond: from industrial decline to Northern Powerhouse
One of the most persistent images of industrial decline in the UK is surely the image of Arthur Scargill and the striking miners facing the police at Orgreave in South Yorkshire. The legacy of changes in global steel production and the destruction of coal mining devastated communities and took away expected routes into work not only in direct production but in the numerous small manufacturing companies that had originally funded Sheffield University and built a city with a fine Town Hall, a historic Company of Cutlers and ornate buildings on streets with names like Commercial Street.
What would you expect to see at the Orgreave site today? A spent slag-heap? Tired and depressed communities with high unemployment and poor health? What you might not expect is a world-leading research and innovation campus.
Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), after more than a decade of investment, is now growing into a full Innovation District, a flash ‘manufacturing skunk works’ in which cutting-edge university research meets industrial high-tech in partnership with over 100 member companies of the likes of Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, Boeing, Siemens, BAE Systems and McLaren. This was what I found when I came to Sheffield to take up the role of Vice-Chancellor in 2007. And with it the potential for manufacturing in the north of England to renew itself in ways I had never imagined.
What has this to do with young people? Manufacturing is now mostly done in a capital intensive environment, where low pay is no longer an advantage. The global competitive advantage comes from being high-tech, from innovation in the value chain. When companies combine with university research, companies get orders and want to expand. This requires investment in skilled workers that match their ambitions.
So a century after local factory workers pitched in donations so their children would have access to a university that benefited their economy and created opportunity, here it is. The AMRC – one of two CATAPULT centres of applied industry-led research in Sheffield – enables the research and testing required to build new aircraft and energy technologies and help make the factories of the future. It includes the world’s first fully reconfigurable factory, with machines capable of rapidly switching production between different high-value components. Forget images of foundries or oily rags. This building is circular, made of glass, engineers working with no separation from the futuristic factory floor in which machines can be relocated by a programmed autonomous vehicle or a remote control you hold in just one hand.
Beside this, the purpose-built Advanced Manufacturing Research Training Centre provides a high-quality vocational route into university for young people with a focus on the skills and culture that are important to employers. Having first opened in 2013, the apprentice training centre currently provides 600 young people from areas in which education often ends at 16 a top-of-the-range apprenticeship. The apprentices are taught in first-class facilities, with a curriculum that is directly shaped by research undertaken with partner companies at the nearby CATAPULT centres. The AMRC apprentices are employed by manufacturing companies, who range from global leaders to local high-tech supply chain companies. They all have jobs. They are learning what is relevant, the skills of the future. And they are earning. They have no debt.
A new route for the engineers of the future
Apprenticeships have become part of the political mainstream in recent years, with ministers urging us to find new routes for social mobility and help the UK raise productivity.
But we should hear a loud warning ringing in our ears. Investment in apprenticeships and skills can create capacity for companies to grow, for others to move to the UK or re-shore production. But only if the quality is right, and only if the apprentices are part of a wider system of industrial partnership using the very latest technologies. If all we do is create a track leading nowhere or, worse still, replace existing jobs or graduate opportunities with a cynical take on cheap labour, we have solved nothing.
The apprenticeships at the AMRC training centre are not a second-class option for those not smart enough to make it to university. They are another route into engineering which our country desperately needs, and industry knows it. The companies that lead the world based on their technological know-how understand that these people – immersed in a research-rich value chain of productivity – are the real secret to future success. They will need apprentices with the skills of the future, and they will pay to create and keep them.
For Sheffield University, this investment reflects our core purpose and responsibilities to society, and it is not cheap. We are ensuring that apprenticeships are not a cul-de-sac, but instead provide a broad educational basis to support young people at the start of their careers. We are developing a manufacturing engineering degree on the same basis, still sponsored by companies. And looking at other tracks, too. Law. Management. Medical engineering.
We are giving young people the chance to train, operate the robots and do the engineering design needed for future products that only people, trained from the ground up, can do. They will infuse the local small companies and suppliers, and that will rebuild society. Real people need more than talk, more than think tanks. And universities, colleges and companies need more than a never-ending series of conferences and hand-wringing about the supposedly impossible-to-reach ‘poor white working-class boys’. Some of our apprentices are indeed the only people in their family in work. They are also smart. They are ambitious. They have no intention of staying poor.
Room for Russell in the Russell Group?
I wish those who talk about apprenticeships and skills policy could meet Russell Fox. In fact, I am making it my business to ensure that as many of our national newspaper editors and politicians with responsibility in this area do meet him, because he has something important to say that comes from real experience.
Who is Russell? He is bright and talented and comes from the East side of Sheffield where there is limited history of university entrance and an unwillingness to accept high levels of debt. He decided to be an apprentice despite the raised eyebrows of his career teacher at school who clearly thought that apprenticeships were an ‘also-ran’ option in higher education. But Russell is his own man, and he was looking clearly at his future.
He came to the AMRC as part of its first cohort of apprentices when he was almost 17, sponsored by his employers, local specialist suppliers Eldon Tools. He worked hard, seizing opportunities to learn from trainers who were from industry and changed his sense of what engineering could be and what his own future might hold. He absorbed the targeted maths teaching and the opportunity to use state of the art machinery in a world-class research facility.
Now he is an award-winning apprentice. At 17 he was named Boeing Apprentice of the Year. A young man who had never been to London or on a train before, I took him with me to speak to our region’s MPs in Parliament. He has since flown to Seattle to visit Boeing’s Dreamliner production facilities. He describes what he learned in the US with bright eyes, and talks about how his own company could benefit from lean manufacturing. He is taking modern production methods back to Eldon Tools where he has all the markers of a future leader.
Overcoming barriers to change
Many of our leading universities already partner with the UK’s top companies on research and innovation, and should be encouraged to develop more high quality vocational degrees alongside this. So what are the barriers to this?
First of all, wider quality issues in apprenticeship training. I sometimes wish we had a better word for apprentice, one which did not share terminology with poor quality and badly-funded courses using out-of-date technologies and too often failing to provide a platform to employment. It is currently too easy for providers to give politicians thousands of apprentices signed up to courses from which a third drop out, and to claim success in headline terms. That is a betrayal of employers and young people, and undermines attempts to build parity of esteem between vocational and academic routes.
Sheffield University delivers world-class degree-level apprenticeships that meet the needs of industry and young people. The word apprentice is related to the French verb apprendre, to learn. Our apprentices have the same status as students on other degree pathways at Sheffield and will graduate with full honours. At our training centre we recruit companies not students, ensuring all our apprentices are employed and receive real industry training. And if, as sometimes happens, a company hits hard times or goes under, there are other employers who know the quality of what we do and will take on the apprentices. We have not lost any of our apprentice places yet, despite the challenging times for industry.
There are internal and systemic barriers too. For all the talk of widening participation, university rankings measure quality by entry tariff not final attainment. This has to change. Rankings, the bane of the marketised higher education system, actively discourage us from taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We take a hit for doing the right thing.
The final barrier is, as is so often the case, cost. Our apprentice training draws companies to invest in the region, but the university subsidises it through other work. We know this training cannot be done on the cheap, and we owe it to the students that it is not. We do not do it because of a market to offer bargain-basement skills qualifications precio de la viagra en farmacias. We invest in this because it is right and we will not lower our standards. But we should not be in this position. Governments sometimes request the very things they make difficult. Funding for higher vocational places within universities should offer a premium for quality.
Who is our system of education for?
Remember I said that the University of Sheffield was founded to provide the best education for the child of the working man. So who is university for today?
Sheffield’s AMRC apprentices are truly inspirational, and other places are looking on and wanting the same. BAE Systems are talking to us about creating another training centre in the North West. Boeing is working with us to support their activities in Oregon. I recently hosted the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge who wondered how the model could help to grow a skilled workforce in an area with a shortage of scientific technical skills and very low unemployment. There is interest in our model of apprenticeships from Birmingham to Korea.
We are also talking about setting up new partnerships to deliver high quality apprenticeships in Wales. This is a big deal to me personally because it reminds me of my own roots in a mining valley in South Wales, and 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 also the communities in Wales that were ravaged by the loss of industries that provided decent jobs and training.
Recently on a visit to our apprentice centre I looked onto the training floor and saw a small group of young men wearing red t-shirts rather than the usual blue ones that bear the logos of the sponsoring companies and our university. When I went to talk to the group, who were working with one of our expert trainers, I found out that they had been referred by the local Jobcentre. As we talked, the young men 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 was 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? I was deeply struck by a sense of responsibility. We – educators and society – were letting these people down.
We need to think hard about how we spend precious educational resource. I do not want to narrow access to university 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.
We need to challenge the fundamental misperception in society about the division between academic knowledge and applied learning. We also desperately need a rebalanced economy with a thriving industry capable of making long term investments in people, knowing that they and we will need their skills to create a competitive edge for the UK, especially if we are to navigate life outside the European Union. One which will see us restore jobs and industries, drive innovation, construct major infrastructure projects and export to the world.
What future do I want to see for the higher education sector? One with more diverse and high quality pathways for young people, where students choose courses of study because they are right for their futures. 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 of future we need for Sheffield to be the engine room of the UK, the industrial heart of the promised Northern Powerhouse. And it is needed in other regions too.
There is no greater waste than lost potential in young people. We owe it to our students and apprentices, and to ourselves and the future prosperity of our nation, to try to be part of building something better.