Why We Need University Technical Colleges

By Dan Cundy

For many of us – and particularly those of us working in education – September is always associated with a new school year and fresh starts. Perhaps starting a new school, wearing a new uniform or just having a new pencil case, the autumn term always seems to offer new possibilities.

This new term is particularly exciting for me as the new University Technical College (UTC) of which I am Principal officially opens this week. For those unfamiliar with the ethos of the existing 39 UTCs dotted around England, UTCs offer a core curriculum of academic subjects alongside technical and practical learning for students aged 14-19 years. Each UTC is sponsored by a university and one or more local employers, and each is focused on scientific and technical specialisms to meet skills gaps in the area for example in engineering or construction.

Alongside South Bank Engineering UTC in Brixton which I’m heading up, another 10 are opening across the country with specialisms including engineering and the built environment and broadcast and digital media.

In Brixton our focus is engineering for the health and building sectors in tune with our sponsors: Skanska, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust and King’s College NHS Trust. These are organisations at the forefront of developing the latest building systems and applications of digital engineering and robotics, for example in surgery.  A large component of our curriculum is based around industry-led projects and contextualised, hands-on learning, with our students using cutting edge equipment and computing, supplementing their academic studies.

Why UTCs?

Political commentators are currently debating, ‘Will she? Won’t she?’ over suggestions that the Prime Minister might reinstate selective schools, bringing back grammar schools. I think they are missing the real education story here and the UTC concept is a more exciting and forward-thinking proposition for our century.

In a recent report for the Edge Foundation, the Digital Revolution, the former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker cited research by the Bank of England which estimates that up to 15 million jobs are at risk of automation in the UK.

Most of these jobs will be administrative, clerical and production tasks, but could include professions such as accountancy or legal roles. The rate of technological advance is so rapid, Baker argues, that whereas previous ‘revolutions’ have created more jobs than have been lost, we are moving towards a situation where people will develop portfolio careers; a bit like Paul Young and his hat, wherever you lay your laptop is your office.

The expanding job market will be in the areas where UTC students excel – engineering, computing, technology and the sciences. Young people are usually attracted to a UTC because they already have an interest in STEM or related subjects and enjoy being able to practically apply the skills they learn. A UTC day is typically from 8.30 am to 5.00 pm with high expectations on students to adopt a work-like attitude and mature behaviour. Consequently, when they leave they are ‘work-ready’ and far better prepared for the challenges of the work place than their contemporaries.

It’s important because ….

My own UTC is based in Brixton in Lambeth, south London, is the 8th most deprived borough in London and the 22nd most deprived in England. There are quite high levels of youth employment and the largest proportion of its working age residents (26.9 per cent) are in lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations. King’s College NHS Trust and Guy’s and St Thomas’ are amongst the biggest employers in the borough, accounting for over half of the jobs in health and social work, but they are often jobs which support services rather than those which require specialised knowledge.

In this light, the UTC offers an attractive package for young people and their families who may have ambition and aspiration, but lack the social capital to help them achieve their full potential. Transferring to a different school aged 14 can be a challenge, especially to a new and untried institution, but South Bank UTC was oversubscribed for its first year of applications with a highly diverse range of backgrounds amongst both students and staff.

Because UTCs have close relationships with local business, students have the advantage of access to employers, work experience and targeted, personalised advice. Good quality careers advice, information and guidance is key to young people’s career development.

Research by Institute for Employment Studies shows that young people who have access to careers advice and work experience, make more successful transitions from secondary schooling into employment, apprenticeships or higher education. Moreover, high quality employer engagement between the ages of 14 and 16 years can translate into higher salaries as students follow their pathways into careers.  The experience of students seems to bear this out. Earlier this year, a survey of UTC students across England found that the majority (91 per cent) said talks by employers were most helpful in helping them plan their future careers. Perhaps most significantly 86 per cent were confident of getting a job when they had finished their studies, not a self-assurance shared even amongst graduates.

Just last month, the London Chamber of Commerce warned that the new levy on employing non-EU migrants would lead to a widening skills gap in the capital. For example, it’s estimated around 750,000 new digital jobs will open up by 2020.  As we look towards our post-Brexit future, I’m excited to think that in a few short years it will be students from South Bank Engineering UTC who will be equipped with those skills and filling those roles.

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