A sad reluctance to apply ourselves

13th June 1997 at 01:00
THE POLYTECHNIC EXPERIMENT 1965-1992. By John Pratt. ISBN O 335 19S64 4 (hb). Open University Press and the Society for Research into Higher Education, Pounds 65.

Not many people know this, but John Pratt and Tyrrell Burgess first coined the phrase "academic drift" in their 1974 report on polytechnics. They used it to indicate a persistent and particularly English tendency for schools, colleges and universities to drift away from the technical and applied towards the academically prestigious.

This drift affected the technical schools which never developed between the grammars and secondary moderns, for instance, or the colleges of advanced technology that followed the civic universities into the elite sector. The polytechnics becoming universities are another case in point.

Was this a mark of the polytechnics' success or their failure is the question posed by Professor Pratt. His exhaustive study looks at the staffing, students, courses and subjects of study, their admin and financing, in fact, everything about the 34 polytechnics in England and Wales. It is an essential work of reference and justifies its price.

But the author seems uncertain how to answer his own question. He highlights the contributions made by the polytechnics with innovative course design and assessment on sandwich and modular multi-disciplinary courses linked to employment and locality. In the best traditions of their origins in public service FE, the polytechnics thus gave second chances to many students failed by the academically-dominated school curriculum. Yet, in the end, academic drift turned them into universities.

Pratt's difficulty arises from his odd view of policy-making as practical experiment based on rational process. In these days of media-obsessed and ego-driven politics, this is truly exceptional. Even in the good old days, the acceptance by the 1964 Labour government of the recommendation for expansion of HE was overturned by the unexpected decision to set up the polytechnics in 1965. In effect, this moved selection up into tertiary education just as it was to be phased out of secondary schooling. It also, as Pratt says, protected the universities from real change.

Now that there is, as Pratt recognises, a binary divide between F and HE, what is left of technical education is in danger of disappearing with the polys, the CATS, the civics, technical secondaries and what is left of apprenticeships.

As feeder colleges amalgamated with second-rate universities, further education too would then lose the distinctiveness that the polytechnics once possessed. The domination of the academic Ivy League would be confirmed and the challenge of an alternative route to generalised knowledge would be lost.

It seems this probable future will be confirmed by Sir Ron Dearing's soon-to-be-published review of HE. If such a future is to be avoided, the FE colleges have much to learn from the ultimate failure of the polytechnic experiment.

Patrick Ainley is author of Degrees of Difference, higher education in the 199Os (Lawrence and Wishart, 1994) and, with Bill Bailey, The Business of Learning, Staff and Student Experiences of Further Education (Cassell 1997).

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