BLOG: Higher Ambitions Summit (morning sessions)

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, unveiled plans for new “Gold Standard” technical degrees for the “forgotten 50%” of young people when he addressed the Sutton Trust-Pearson Higher Ambition Summit.

Technical BAs will be created jointly by universities and industry, he said, “For the first time, people will be able to progress further, earn while they learn at university with a route to technical and professional employment.”

Expansion would not be at the cost of academic degrees nor would a Labour Government restore the polytechnics to provide them. Instead they want as many universities as possible to come forward. “We will not make the policy mistake of splitting universities into two types.”

Stressing the need for routes to academic and vocational excellence of equal merit, he said: “Do we want one nation where everybody has opportunities or two national where half don’t? For too long we have believed there is only one route to success.” There should also be a direct route from apprenticeships to university or there would not be equal status for vocational education.

A Labour Government would give greater control over the choice of courses locally to Local Enterprise Partnerships by devolving money down from central government and giving greater control to business.

Miliband’s proposal for a BA, which effectively leads on from the proposed Labour Tech Bacc, was welcomed by participants but they cautioned him not to see it as a route exclusively for the forgotten 50%. Too many young people were already on inappropriate academic courses and would do far better doing technical degrees, they said.

He was also urged not to lose sight of existing strong vocational routes. Frank McLoughlin, Principal of City and Islington College and chair of the recent national inquiry into adult vocational education, said: “At our colleges last year we sent 1,408 people to university from vocational programmes, particularly BTEC.”

The strength of BTEC was often underplayed, according to Rod Bristow, President of Pearson. “As entry to A-level is beginning to flat-line, entry to BTECs continue to grow,” he said. Nor should the value of the BTEC National Diploma – the equivalent of a Foundation Degree – be underestimated. He spoke of a need to look closely at operations in countries such as Singapore which had created a series of “bridges and ladders” across the vocational and academic pathways at various stages in a person’s life.

David Hall, Acting Chairman of the Sutton Trust, also reminded people of the need to win teachers over. Pointing to the latest Ipsos MORI survey for the Trust, he said: “More than half of young people say they are interested in considering an apprenticeships rather than university if it is in a job they want to do, but only a third say their teachers have discussed it with them.”

Similar research for the Sutton Trust also showed a high prejudice against the vocational route over degrees .