Return of the Colleges of Advanced Technology

Are the Conservatives raiding the 1950s for ideas?  Adopting ideas from UKIP seems to be in vogue, and they were very keen on themes from the 1950s.  Is that where the next big ideas are coming from?

The Conservative Party manifesto has moved the notion of institutes of technology on, now saying:

We will establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers. They will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students. They will be able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education. Above all, they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.

This has provoked some comparison with the binary policy, where polytechnics were set up to focus on technical education, responsive to local needs.  However, I think they have more in common with an earlier initiative, the Colleges of Advanced Technology, a 1950s answer to the need for higher technical skills.

As it emerged from post-war austerity, the UK became enthused by the prospects of technology.  The Festival of Britain was a marker of this as was the development of iconic technologies such as Comet, the first jet airliner.  Britain was producing increasing numbers of qualified school leavers and the universities had moved from an immediate expansion after the war to cope with returning veterans to also cope with an growing number of applicants.

Technical education, whose status seems a permanent problem, was organised into local, regional and national colleges.  The Colleges had a mixture of full and part-time courses, with some specialisation at the regional colleges and the national colleges serving small, but nationally important, industries such as horology and scientific instrument making or rubber technology.  David Eccles presented the 1956 White Paper on Technical Education proposing that the bulk of full-time or sandwich courses should be concentrated in  a small number of colleges.

The rationale for concentrating courses in a few colleges was linked to standards; sufficient staff, linked subjects in allied technologies and fundamental sciences and opportunities for research.  Building on previous decisions twenty four colleges were highlighted, based on those that had received a specific grant because of their advanced work.  In the end, only ten Colleges of Advanced Technology were approved in England and Wales, and three were not included in that initial list.

White Paper CAT Status Present Designation
Acton Technical College Brunel CAT Brunel University
Birmingham College of Technology Birmingham CAT Aston University
Borough Polytechnic London South Bank University
Bradford Technical College Bradford Institute of Technology University of Bradford
Brighton Technical College University of Brighton
Cardiff College of Technology & Commerce Welsh CAT Cardiff University
Chelsea Polytechnic Chelsea CAT Merged into Kings College, London
Glamorgan Technical College University of South Wales
Huddersfield Technical College University of Huddersfield
Lambeth, Brixton LCC School of Building London South Bank University
Leicester College of Technology and Commerce De Monfort University
Liverpool College of Building Liverpool John Moores University
North Staffordshire Technical College University of Staffordshire
Northampton Polytechnic Northampton CAT City, University of London
Northern Polytechnic London Metropolitan University
Nottingham & District Technical College Nottingham Trent University
Royal Technical College Royal CAT University of Salford
Rugby College of Technology and Arts
Sir John Cass College London Metropolitan University
Sunderland Technical College Sunderland University
West Ham College of Technology University of East London
Woolwich Polytechnic Greenwich University
Loughborough CAT Loughborough University
Battersea CAT Surrey University
Bristol CAT University of Bath

Measures of university prestige are awful, but it’s worth noting that by virtue of their CAT status, nine of the original 24 have a royal charter, a distinction that the Conservative manifesto would bestow on the new Institutes of Technology.  Robbins had suggested the CATS become technological universities or that they might join existing universities.  Chelsea CAT was often fought over, nearly moved to St Albans, and became part of the University of London in 1966, finally merging with King’s College in 1985.

The CATs were not given degree awarding powers, but the Council for Technological Awards accredited a new form of qualification: the Diploma of Technology.  this was set at degree standard, and given the same official standing.  However, as technology was seen in a new light, technologists were to be given a different education.  It mandated a sandwich approach to placements and other distinctive features such as a liberal studies programme.

The new Institutes of Technology seem to fit the CAT pattern.  In the Industrial Strategy Green Paper they were intended to specialise in technical disciplines and to cross the old post-compulsory age range.

We would expect most Institutes of Technology to grow out of high-quality provision. All Institutes of Technology would be expected to: specialise in technical disciplines (such as STEM) that are aligned to technical routes; offer high quality provision at levels 3, 4 and 5 ( i.e. the equivalent of A-level to just below degree); and have a local focus to deliver qualifications of value that meet the skills needs of local employers.

One of the issues that affected the CATs, and later the Polytechnics, was the balance between lower and higher work.  Although not officially a problem, often the sector would be split into sheep and goats on the basis of the proportion of higher education – as it was in 1988 when Kenneth Baker used an arbitrary measure to decide which colleges would become incorporated and move to the PCFC and which would remain under LEA control.  The notion of Academic Drift seems to have already started to work before the institutes even open.  The manifesto now has them operating at degree level or above, potentially accessing funding from both OfS and UKRI and having professorships, Regius or otherwise.

Implicitly these Institutes recognise the failure of ‘Challenger Institutions’ to do the work that the Government wants them to do.  These Institutes will be planned and receive government funding.  They will be distributed in ‘major cities’ – so that will mean a bidding process (the process for both CATs and Polytechnics was fraught).  I would also expect any specialism to need approving in some manner to avoid unhelpful duplication.  There has been limited interest among the Challengers in this form of broad technical provision, except for small specialist places such as Hereford and Malmsbury (Dyson), so here we have publicly funded colleges delivering the Conservatives’ new mission:

Above all, they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.

The 1956 White Paper was clear that is would be the ‘attitude of individual firms’ that would count the most towards success of technical education.  60 years on, the issues of the need for partnership remain the same, and it looks like the solution will be remarkably similar.


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