The role of the polytechnics
A few weeks ago, I was giving a talk to a large sixth form in a school near London. We were discussing some of the decisions that Parliament will have to make concerning higher education. I asked how many wanted to go to university, how many to the polytechnics, and how many to some other kind of training. I took it for granted that all of them would want some kind of qualification, because while in the past, experience may have been sufficient to secure good jobs, in the future qualifications will be needed as well.
The response was interesting. Ninety per cent wanted to go to university, only two to the polytechnics and the rest to accountancy, to a solicitor's office or to take some professional training. From the polytechnics' viewpoint this was daunting. Then one of the staff gave the explanation; “We haven't really told them much about the polytechnics.”
This is the first problem. How do you describe the polytechnics? They are new but the word sounds as if it came from the last century. Used as an adjective it means dealing with or devoted to various arts; used in relation to an institution, it means according to my dictionary “a technical and recreative school,” That doesn't get us very far.
What are the distinguishing characteristics of polytechnics?
First, although new, they are founded on a tradition of meeting a need for training that is not met elsewhere. They are derived from a well-established system of further education whose expansion has been faster than either the university or college of education sectors, although comparatively little is heard of it. The need was there; so was the response of the technical, commercial, and art colleges, a number of which have now formed the basis of the polytechnics.
Secondly, they have tended to provide training for specific jobs; in modern jargon (which often seems to confuse rather than clarify) the courses are vocationally motivated. Therefore the students really want to do that course. On the scientific side, the courses are likely to be concerned as much with the application of scientific principles as with a close study of the principles themselves. Pure physics courses are more often found in the universities.
This argument, however, should not be carried too far. In a period when machinery and methods rapidly become outdated, it is vital to have the kind of training which is rooted in those principles which enable the applied scientist to go about finding the answers to tomorrow's problems as well as today's.
In describing the characteristics of the polytechnic as vocational, the impression may be conveyed that they are only relevant to jobs in existence now. This is not so. Consideration of practical problems at an advanced level by a young trained mind will surely lead to those innovations without which industry cannot survive.
Undoubtedly this practical application is the essential concern of the polytechnics but the universities also are increasing their links with industry, so there is some overlap between the two.
The Third characteristic of the polytechnics is variety. Variety in the different levels at which subjects are studied, from full degree courses to less advanced work leading to a selection of diplomas for engineering, the health service, administration, catering, fashion, and design, etc., some full and some part-time. Each is an excellent course of its kind and carrying its own reputation.
When some of the polytechnics have been going longer, I believe we shall see many other advantages from having this wide variety of subjects and kinds of courses in the same organisation. It must surely be beneficial to study design in relation to your own subject whether it be engineering or hotel work or textiles. Most people going into commerce or industry would also do well to absorb something about the technique and problems of management; and in our numerate society more people should know about computers, their advantages, their limits, and the reactions of employees to the introduction of computers in a business. This many sided experience would be difficult to get at university.
And Fourthly—I can best illustrate this point by referring to a talk with another group of young people a few days ago. The had all left school and were either in a job or training. I asked what sort of training—the answer, very promptly, was “sandwich course at the polytechnic, they are much the best, you keep in touch with the job, can earn some money and live at home, and the degrees are just as good.”
They were all doing the “thin” sandwich course, i.e. six months study, six months practical on the job. The significant thing was that these young people could have gone to a unversity on their “A” level results. They deliberately chose the polytechnic as their first choice
Striking confirmation of this trend came from another education authority, a member of which provided me with figures to indicate that a number of sixth formers were not making university their first choice, even if they had the requisite A levels, but were choosing other sorts of higher education including some of those excellent colleges which have not been designated as polytechnics.
Fifthly, polytechnics have a local flavour in that many of their courses reflect the local industries. This is bound to be so because of the necessity of making arrangements with employers for sandwich courses. Further, a large slice of the finance is provided by local education authorities. [end p1]
Any system that has expanded as rapidly as the polytechnics and further education colleges at a time when money has been short, is bound to have problems. No one would deny that the facilities for students, staff, libraries, etc., are all in need of improvement. But I doubt whether that is sufficient justification for scrapping the whole system.
I believe the polytechnics have an enormous potential; that they will constantly adapt to changing needs; that in conjunction with local industry they will stimulate innovation and forward thinking; and above all they will satisfy the needs of those young people whose main desire is to become highly trained to get a better job for their own benefit and to provide for the economic and other needs of the community.
But the polytechnics will never achieve what we want them to on the basis of the present Government's spending plans on education set out in the recent White Paper on public expenditure. For it is clear from this White Paper that the Government is planning to slow the rate of growth of spending on education so that it will rise less than public expenditure as a whole. Educational spending should rise faster than the average and this view was expressed by Mr. Iain Macleod as Shadow Chancellor in the recent House of Commons debate on public expenditure.