TUHH-Präsident Ed Brinksma im Interview mit The Guardian

'Google isn't interested in degrees': is the UK snobby about technical education?


Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, and Ed Brinksma, president of Hamburg University of Technology. Illustration: Sophie Wolfson
Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, and Ed Brinksma, president of Hamburg University of Technology. Illustration: Sophie Wolfson

The vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and the president of Germany’s Hamburg University of Technology on whether vocational training is fit for purpose.

The prime minister’s review of post-18 education, set to report next month, is expected to recommend ways of encouraging young people to consider vocational training routes when they leave school. This will be no small task. In Germany the so-called dual training route, where young people spend a third of their time in college and two-thirds learning on the job with a company, has long had high esteem, and roughly half of young people choose this route instead of university. But in the UK the picture is very different. Before Christmas the education secretary, Damian Hinds, described the British as a nation of “technical education snobs” who consider university the only path to a decent job. Will this ever change? And what does all this mean for universities?

In the latest of our 2VCs discussion series, Anna Fazackerley talked to Ed Brinksma, the Dutch president of Germany’s Hamburg University of Technology, and Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

The Hamburg University of Technology is a new university, established 40 years ago, that prides itself on being both research-led and entrepreneurial. It has a heavy emphasis on engineering subjects, with particular expertise in green technologies, life science technologies, and aviation and maritime systems. It works with many of the big players in manufacturing, including Airbus and Dutch firm NXP. In 2016 34% of HUT graduates were in regular employment, and 58% were doing postgraduate study 18months after leaving the university.

The University of Hertfordshire has an explicit mission to be known globally as the UK’s leading business-facing university. It ranks very highly on employability, with 96.5% of graduates in employment or further study six months after graduating. All courses are underpinned by industry expertise. The university has strong degree apprenticeship relationships with Vauxhall and TUI.

Will British snobbery stop us from matching Germany on technical education?
In Hamburg, as in other German cities, universities and colleges compete on a much more level playing field. Brinksma explains that the city state puts a lot of energy into trying to attract young people to do dual training at one of Hamburg’s vocational colleges. The high regard for vocational training leads to exemplary results in youth unemployment, as well as highly skilled workers. But there is still some degree of social stratification. “It is less than in Britain but it is still there. Even in Germany there is a clear correlation between people who go to university and the education their parents had.”

McKellar is optimistic that things are moving on in Britain. He insists there is no snobbishness about training students for jobs in the newer post-1992 universities, which brought a “totally different outlook” to higher education. “I’m not even sure it exists in the older universities anymore,” he adds.

But I ask him whether the real snobbery lies with parents, who might see technical courses as inferior. “Yes, that is true,” he says, expressing frustration that many people still assume degree apprenticeships are for people in dirty boilersuits, and not something that law firms or prestigious companies such as Rolls Royce or KPMG engage in.

“I certainly see that mindset in politicians too. We’ve got these amazing schemes with big companies but if you speak to many politicians they say degree apprenticeships are just for people from disadvantaged backgrounds without proper attainment. And that’s just not true. They should be for people at all social levels.”

Should more young people go to college?
The prime minister’s review of post-18 education is widely expected to try to push more would-be students into further education. McKellar describes himself as a “huge advocate” of FE, and says colleges have done a terrific job with ever-dwindling resources, but like many vice-chancellors he is fearful of where this is leading. He isn’t opposed to Britain mimicking Germany’s roughly 50/50 split of young people doing on-the-job college training courses or going to university. But he is adamant that this must be about training people who aren’t currently studying, rather than raiding universities.

One idea the review team has considered, according to one leak, is that those with the lowest A-level grades should no longer be able to access loans to go to university. McKellar is vehemently opposed to any such back-door numbers cap. “I think it would be a tragedy for the people who were no longer able to access higher education, but also a tragedy for the country.”

In Hamburg the proportion of young people choosing university study has now slightly overtaken the number going to college. But Brinksma says this is not raising any eyebrows in government, and despite the fact that university tuition is free he is not aware of any desire to constrain the number of people getting degrees. “There was a time about 15 years ago when Germany had some fine scholars but the university system wasn’t great. Since then they have really focused on investing in excellence. I think they are still supporting the growth of universities.” He adds: “We need a lot of skilled workers – but a modern society needs higher education as well.”

Indeed, Brinksma sees the future as being about more higher education for many people. “Will the modern student just do one masters degree? Or will they want to come back later and do a succession of courses as they need to learn different skills?” The Labour government stopped many people from choosing this path in the UK back in 2007, when it abolished public support for those taking second degrees. Brinksma says that funding is the crunch point in Germany too. “The question is, of course, who pays? And this is something that is being debated over here right now.”

Are we going in the right direction with degree apprenticeships?
Germany has a long tradition of excellent apprenticeships, but these happen entirely outside of universities. Nonetheless Brinksma thinks Britain is right to experiment in this area. “I see the need to have a combination of working and studying, because what you learnt a few years ago might be out of date by the time you get to a job,” he says. “And we are seeing that some companies are starting to care less about formal university degrees. Google aren’t so interested in degrees. They are hiring people with great programming skills, and that’s becoming more common.”

McKellar is passionate about the idea of degree apprenticeships. “It’s a chance to qualify without debt, to train for a job and get a good education while you do it, and you’re very employable at the end,” he says. His university wants to offer them in all of their nine academic schools.

His concerns are mainly about ensuring that degree apprenticeship students get a fair deal. Hertfordshire is thinking hard about how they can ensure apprentices – who only spend 20% of their time in university and tend to live at home – actually feel part of the university experience. This might mean encouraging them to join a student society or sports club, or becoming a student ambassador.

He also thinks universities have a big role to play in making sure apprentices have a broader range of transferrable skills to protect them. “These courses have been designed by employers, but the concern I have is that with technology advancing, many of these jobs will disappear. We want to make sure students are trained in things like critical thinking.”

How closely does your university work with business?
McKellar is quick to stress that university is about much more than getting a job. “But we fundamentally believe that’s one of our strengths.” People from business sit on all of the universities’ curriculum development committees, to make sure that learning is useful and up to date. All subjects offer experiential education where possible, with law students arguing their points in a real court, engineers building cars and historians interviewing people to piece together a detailed history of the local football club.

Almost every Hertfordshire student now does some sort of work experience. McKellar explains that this is especially important for students from less advantaged backgrounds, who might not have the connections that will help their middle-class classmates climb the career ladder. “As well as delivering a set of skills our curriculums now also focus on delivering important attitudes for working life after university, such as professionalism, the ability to research something, and respect for others,” he adds.

Brinksma agrees that work placements are hugely beneficial, and says it tends to be the most ambitious and motivated students who choose to do them at his university. Any degree course at Hamburg University of Technology can be followed by an “extensive period” working for a company, and Brinksma is keen to encourage far more students to take this route. Businesses sponsor placements themselves, and although students don’t get a separate diploma for this training, it typically leads to a job after graduation. “These people are hugely sought after by industry as they have the huge advantage that they already know how to tackle real-world issues,” he says.

Ed Brinksma

What was your first degree in and where did you study?
Mathematics, University of Groningen, Netherlands.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Go study abroad.

What is your guilty pleasure?
French fries with mayonnaise.

If you weren’t running a university what would you be?
Most likely a researcher; in another life, a cook.

What do you like most about winter?
Crisp blue skies, ice skating.

Where do you most like to go on holiday?
The Mediterranean, because of the sun and food. Iceland, New Zealand, or Norway because of the impressive landscapes.

What do you most admire about Britain?
Monty Python

Quintin McKellar

What was your first degree in and where did you study?
Degree of Bachelor of veterinary medicine and surgery, University of Glasgow.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Work hard and play harder.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Caramel shortcake.

If you weren’t a vice-chancellor what would you be?
A cow vet.

What do you like most about winter?
Crisp cold mornings rowing on the canal.

Where do you most like to go on holiday?
I love the French countryside.

What do you most admire about Germany?
The people and their work ethic.

Text: Anna Fazackerley - The Guardian

See also: https://www.theguardian.com ... y-about-technical-education

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