Critics claim technical colleges are going soft
They were created as academies for rigorous technical subjects with a focus on engineering, but the latest wave of university technical colleges have chosen to specialise in "softer" subjects including hospitality, tourism and sport science.
Critics of the university technical college (UTC) programme said the latest announcement confirmed their fears that the 14-18 technical schools would duplicate the work of FE colleges - which from September will also be able to recruit at 14 - and would be too narrowly focused on the interests of business.
The latest 13 UTCs to be approved by the Department for Education include one in London sponsored by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, which will specialise in the "technology of science, sport and health", and a Watford UTC near the headquarters of Hilton Hotels that will specialise in "computer science, hospitality and tourism".
The University and College Union warned that the UTC programme risked creating a two-tier system of vocational education, with expensive UTCs and underfunded colleges. "We warned last year that university technical colleges were likely to offer similar courses and curriculum to existing further education colleges," a spokesman said. "That does now appear to be the case.
"At a time when colleges are already facing huge budget cuts, it is essential that vital funding is not diverted away from them to new UTCs offering much the same."
The union also questioned the reliance on business demands in determining UTC specialisms. "Relying simply on the narrow interests of business is not the way to ensure we provide the wide-ranging education the country needs," the spokesman added.
In 2010, announcing plans for an expansion of UTCs, Lord Baker, who co-created the programme with the late Lord Dearing, said it was important to maintain quality. "We mustn't water the beer," he said.
This week Lord Baker denied that UTCs were losing their technical and engineering focus. He said that sport science and hospitality and tourism courses would have a strong technical element, with hotel groups, for instance, increasingly reliant on technology.
"The sport UTC isn't for people who want to learn to be footballers, it's for sport science. There are quite a lot of jobs in the field," he said. "All the football clubs now have huge teams of people doing this sort of thing, and there is a technological side with all the machines needed to run it."
Lord Baker said that employers were the decision-makers when it came to subject specialisms. "It's local employers. In Plymouth it's the dockyards, in Heathrow it's the airport, in Chester it's Siemens and Bentley. These colleges are employer-led: we don't dream up these specialisms," he said.
There are no official criteria for accepting or rejecting employer proposals but Lord Baker said the programme would not support a UTC for call centre customer service or retail.
He added that the broadening of UTC subject specialisms did not mean they were duplicating the work of FE colleges, arguing that UTCs provided more of a general education and that their provision was better quality.
"The FE world needs a phenomenal transformation," Lord Baker said. "They sell courses; we sell a rounded education. They will train someone to be a clerk in a tourism office. That is not what we are about. We are into the technical side of big organisations."
A third of all A-level students and 44 per cent of students achieving at level 3 are based in a college, but Lord Baker said colleges needed to do more. "They're not as good as specialist training colleges in countries such as Germany and Austria," he said. "They're very good at selling courses; they don't do the general education. And they recruit at 16.
"They get students up to level 2 by the age of 18; we get them up to level 2 at 16. FE colleges are quite good at level 1 and 2 but they're not so good at level 3."