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Friday, 8 August 2014

Academe and Apprenticeship

Fifty-one years ago, in 1963, as a student in the University of Durham I took part in a Union Society debate on the issues implicit in the Robbins Report on the future of the Universities. The Report was the outcome of a long investigation by a Royal Commission [the highest level of public inquiry] which was chaired by Lionel Robbins, the great man of the London School of Economics and one of the earliest Life Peers. The panel included the General Secretary of the TUC and a series of captains of industry and that magic circle known as the 'great and good' [then much more respected than they are now].

The predominant conclusion of the Commission was that it was vital for the future health of the economy, and of society in the wider sense, that there should be a vast increase in the number of people in university courses. There should be both new universities and great expansion of existing institutions. It seemed obvious that Britain must at least keep pace with other countries in expanding higher education: and very few people gainsaid that. However, I based my speech on a caveat to that consensual position.

Britain had developed a massive system of qualifications for industrial and commercial occupations, mostly validated by the City and Guilds of London Institute. Tens of thousands of people underwent a mixture of workplace experience and theoretical underpinning derived from day-release courses in technical colleges all over the country. I argued that these qualifications were at risk of becoming under-rated, with a cataclysmic impact on the quality and advancement of production. I proposed that City and Guilds qualifications should be recognised as equivalent to many technical degrees in other countries, with a dramatic positive impact on the comparative statistics for the UK. Constant review of both the practical and the academic quality and content of the diplomas could ensure that parity was maintained.

This was - of course - ignored, and Britain allowed the system to be weakened dramatically as the university system devised more and more irrelevant degrees for more and more students who regarded factory-floor employment with contempt. Britain has now reaped the results of this idiocy. While 49% of French firms, and 40% of German firms have apprentices, the proportion of British firms with apprentices is NINE. British factories are falling behind all their competitors. Between 1996 and 2013 British goods exports increased [in cash turnover terms] by 74%: while US exports increased by 133% and Germany's by 173%. Much of this gap was explained by the significant slowing in export increases between 2008 and 2012, the years of the 'recession'. Even at this comparatively low rate of growth, employers are reporting their fear of a coming skills shortage.

Graduates in [real] engineering subjects are invaluable, and the pathetically small number of British engineering graduates who complete higher degree studies is particularly worrying. For decades now, the research opportunities in engineering that have plentifully been available in the UK have been taken up by foreign students, who mostly take their high-level theoretical skills back to their native countries. With a serious dearth of native engineering doctorates, and a massive shortage of skilled factory employees who have a good understanding of the theory and mathematics that underpin the processes that they perform, Britain is denuded of the productive human resources that the economy needs.

I am not at all special: hundreds of thousands of people have recognised and worried about the issue on which this blog is based; but we are powerless in the face of an impregnable Establishment and a flood of disastrous evidence. Something must be done: and it can only begin at the grass roots. Government and higher education are too deeply sunk into their error to be expected to recognise the simple truth,

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