Vocational or academic qualifications – what’s the difference and does it matter? Lynn Senior, Head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby, explores the topic.
According to the current government, the UK is severely lacking in young people with technical skills that enable them to work in industry and, as a result, education is seeing yet another overhaul of qualifications, with vocational or technical education at the forefront of these changes.
However, before setting off down another route, we need to consider what we mean by vocational and what our young people actually need in order to gain employment and/ or fill the skills gaps. Recent articles suggest that vocational purely means a qualification leading to a career or vocation, with suggestions that these qualifications are not accepted by some universities that do not offer vocational degrees.
It is evident that vocational education has been a prominent topic of discussion among governments and educators for many decades, with well-meaning politicians attempting to address the needs of the workforce and the UK economy. This can be traced back through the ages with the 1867 Schools Enquiry Commission report, ‘Report Relative to Technical Education,’ which discussed the lack of technical training offered in the UK, as highlighted by the Great International Exhibition of Manufacturers at Crystal Palace in 1851. The report noted the lack of technical education in the UK was creating a division between standards across Europe and potentially creating a disadvantage for UK industries, and led to extensive dialogue on the nature of technical education and experimental models in the provision of it.
So, has anything changed?
In 1889, technical colleges were created offering a range of technical programmes and training, followed by the development in 1905 of Junior Technical Schools (JTSs). The Education Act of 1944 saw the JTSs renamed as secondary technical schools, and the Spens Report (1948) supported technical schools and recommended their conversion to Technical High Schools, also suggesting widening the curriculum in secondary schools to include more vocational aspects.
Where are these technical schools today?
University Technical Colleges and Further Education Colleges offer a range of vocational programmes, with very little vocational offering in schools. There is also evidence to suggest that any vocational offer in schools is aimed at the lower achieving students. So, based on this, is there any surprise that there is a perception of lack of parity with academic qualifications?
Academic vs vocational
I would argue that many of the qualifications in existence today are a blend of theoretical and practical that could lead you into a career route. For example, the BTEC, while being perceived as vocational, does contain a strong academic flavour of theory to underpin practice so is, in essence, a BTEC is of parity to the gold standard A level, and should be accepted as a matter of course by universities.
As a nation, we should not be concerned with all young people gaining traditional academic qualifications but should accept that there are two types of people needed for an effective economy. I would advocate a back-to-the-workplace approach, as in the apprenticeship route. While there is great value in an academic education, I would suggest that no one size fits all and, for the economy and country to be competitive, we need to have both sets of learners. Indeed, apprenticeships and high level apprenticeships, for example degree apprenticeships, are valued by the government and seen as a very viable choice with young people who can still complete a degree while working in their chosen career. As a post 1992 university, Derby is well placed to offer the blend of traditional academic and vocational pathways and our degree apprenticeships are growing in popularity in areas such as engineering, nursing and education.
In conclusion, the traditional academic route, while attractive to some learners, may not provide the hands on skills that the UK economy currently needs whereas the apprenticeship can be moulded to meet industry needs and, indeed, is designed with industry partners