The UK exported £600 billion in goods and services last year, but only around one in ten British businesses currently export – far behind continental competitors like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Government has therefore launched ‘Made in the UK, Sold to the World’ to help businesses across the UK double their exports.
While this is a welcome step, and aligns well with the Government’s Innovation Strategy, we need to be bolder and utilise the strengths of our Universities of Technology to strengthen both our soft power influence and our platform for exports.
There is a significant demand for technical skills in the world’s fastest developing economies. Currently, only 12% of India’s workforce are digitally skilled and Amazon Web Services predicts that this will need to increase nine-fold by 2025 in order to keep up with demand. In China, the Government is creating a network of overseas vocational colleges (called Luban Workshops) to train up local people in technical areas required by their Belt and Road projects. While initially started by regional government, Beijing has rapidly taken over the Luban Workshop initiative, as it has become clear that these new institutions are not only strengthening relationships with growing economies but also training their workforces using the Chinese technology and software they are seeking to export.
There is a common and long-standing misconception in the UK that our country doesn’t ‘do’ technical education and one of the results of this is that our overseas education delegations often focus on showcasing Research-Intensive Universities rather than Universities of Technology.
Over the last 150 years, successive Education Secretaries have launched initiatives with the promise of delivering a system of technical education to rival Germany’s. It is what led to the foundation of my institution, London South Bank University (LSBU), in 1892 (then the Borough Polytechnic Institute) and other polytechnics in the 50s. It is what led to the creation of Colleges of Advanced Technology in the 60s.
Although some of these institutions have been driven to widen the scope of their provision, many have maintained the technical focus for which they were founded – educating technicians and professionals and collaborating with businesses to drive innovation in new products and services. Far from dying out, 39% of students studying at UK universities in 2019 were, in fact, enrolled onto a technical course. Rather than being ‘lesser versions’ of the UK’s research-intensive institutions, as they are so often portrayed, ‘Universities of Technology’ are distinct and powerful institutions in their own right, providing crucial support to UK plc. Nissan depends on the automotive engineers trained by Sunderland University, just as the construction industry depends on the fact 2/3rds of all building service engineers are trained at LSBU. I recently explored the potential these institutions have for supporting the levelling-up agenda in a report co-authored with Aston University.
The skills and expertise of these institutions are not only vital to the health of the UK economy, but they could also have an important role to play in boosting the UK’s soft power as an independent trading nation. For example, LSBU is currently exploring how we can adapt our existing, award-winning, technical provision by working with overseas partner institutions to create a suite of technical programmes modelled on English higher and degree apprenticeships. We are already in talks with Zhejiang Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering (ZIME) in Hangzhou Province, China about establishing a joint institute which will offer Level 5 (HND equivalent) technical diplomas in engineering and business.
Perhaps the time has come for us to stop trying to force new initiatives or create new institutions but instead to recognise the value of our existing Universities of Technology and encourage their growth as part of a differentiated education sector. The recent Skills for Jobs White Paper and the Innovation Strategy provide an excellent framework for this work so long as we don’t restrict our ambition with outmoded and often poorly informed views of what the UK education sector already has the power to offer.