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Technical Degrees? Deja vu!

Ed Milliband re-launches the plea for vocational training, newly re-branded as “technical degrees”. In principle I am all in favour. The British vocational training system is appalling and something needs to be done about it. A few concerns though:

  • To which extent this idea will be a true innovation, rather than re-heating the same old soup? I am slightly perplexed. The revision of the vocational system promoted through the 1990s did not lead to any good. NVQs deliver qualifications not recognised by the labour market and the return on investment of such qualifications is short-termed and very low. Continous revisions to them system cannot but do worse as the labour market becomes suspicious about degrees that are not known and are not tested long enough to provide any sort of information on the skills delivered.
  • The common denominator between Italy (my home country) and the UK is poor vocational training. Yet, the two education systems could not be more different. So, to which extent can the two countries say: “We want to import the German model”? The dual-system that works so well in Germany might not have an easy life in either Italy and the UK, if not adapted to their specific environments (and that is where the problems start!). Besides, the vocational system in Germany works very well because it is linked to a sound apprenticeship scheme, where all the stakeholders have a say. Is there fertile ground to do the same in the UK? Social dialogue in Italy and the UK is very different from social dialogue in Germany; the corporatist approach promoted in the German way to negotiate across social stakeholders is unknown territory in the Italian and Anglosaxon cultures.
  • The reform introduced to the HE and FE system in the UK from the 1990s transformed good polytechnics in bad universities. Now it seems that we want to reverse back praising the value of proper vocational education. To which extent will this be a return to polytechnics? In other words: who is going to produce these technical degrees?
  • What will be the implications for Universities? We (sadly) spent the past few years scrapping the idea of ‘knowledge’ to substitute that with the mission of delivering ‘skills’. So now we will have ‘skills’ delivered by university institutions and “technical degrees”. What will be the difference? Will this change generate more competition or less competition in the tertiary education sector?
  • Finally, my thoughts go to the poor employability officers scattered around HE institutions in the UK. How will they assess, design, and promote the ‘new’ skills generated by technical degrees? How will they market them and differentiate them from the regular degrees? (Good luck guys!)

There is no doubt that the British education system needs to address issues related to vocational training and unskilled unemployment. Perhaps, rather than adding new degrees to a newly re-reformed (and already distressed) HE system, we should find the courage to go back to the old: polytechnics that worked very well and produced skills relevant for the labour market.

Gender bias and fairness of treatment: a tale of demand and supply?

I recently attended a seminar on Unconscious Bias. The principle is simple yet always problematic: the evaluation of others is affected by our own stereotypes and attitudes, which we cannot see ourselves. So far so good…

The conversation kicked off on career progression, and continued with career progression in academia, and then again on gender bias. Ok, I started to get a little itch right then. Gender bias is indeed a huge problem in academia, and I strongly believe it should be addressed. But it is not the only source of inequality and unfair treatment. I would say that ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality, just to mention other three, also play an important (negative) role…yet they are widely ignored. Think, for instance, how much the UK has benefited from the brain drain from other countries (like mine, Italy). A large number of extraordinary researchers and teachers, yet: how many academics not born and bred in the United Kingdom are in leadership positions in our university system?

Ok, back to gender bias –do not get me wrong- I fully embrace the cause, even though I have some concerns to share about the debate around it. The seminar continued illustrating methods and techniques to monitor on career progression procedures. With a few interjections and some (quite angry) comments about the current situation from the audience (90% composed of female colleagues). What I struggle to understand is: where is the novelty? Every modern institution has Human Resources and Equality and Diversity policies to tackle gender discrimination. It is quite difficult to evaluate their impact, but they are in place. So the next question is: what is missing?

I will use the language that I am familiar with (as economist) to explain my point of view. Imagine that we are in the market for “fairness in the work environment”. There is a supply of fairness delivered by HR and E&D policy and procedures. This is complemented and informed by data, statistics, and all sort of interviews on experience of applicants to career progression. A lot of time and effort is spent on the supply side, but what about the demand side? Yeah, right: what about demand for fairness? Females (or other groups subject to discrimination) are not well represented in leadership position, but are they applying for these positions? (We can observe the number of those who applied, but not the number of those who got discouraged by the system and did not. This is what we call sample selection bias). The problem is that particular groups (e.g. females) have experienced discrimination for decades… centuries really! So, even if institutions are taking care of the supply side of fairness, the demand might be lagging behind because it takes time for discriminated groups to raise their own awareness and aspirations to come to a position of even demanding for fairness. Assessing this empirically it is not an easy task, but at least we should acknowledge it!

So, the problem is there: there is still under-representation for particular social groups. But can we clearly pinpoint whether that is a supply or a demand issue? Somebody might say: it does not matter, the problem is still there! The answer is, yes, the problem is there, but the policy you need to put in place to address it is completely different! I think we should never neglect the supply side; we should continue to monitor it and to improve it. But on the demand side we are truly lagging behind. I would like to see more training, mentoring and networking to raise awareness within social groups affected by discrimination. (What I often see, instead, is a lot of entrenchment and anger). It takes time and effort, but it is essential. Now, there are two reasons why institutions push on the supply side: (1) it is easier to tackle, (2) it prevents legal disputes and protects institutions from being sued. This is perfectly understandable. But how about people (e.g. females)? How can we incentivise pressure groups to abandon entrenched, angry positions to take real good care of the demand side? Who should do it? Hard to tell, but that is the direction to go now.