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Technically a University (Trends in HE)

I am studying for a short technical qualification covering Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. You might think this is a strange thing for an Associate Dean to be doing but it’s for a few different reasons to do with students and the direction of travel in Higher Education policy.

There are better sites than mine that have covered this in detail but via a combination of policies like PROCEED, IoTs, The Skills and Post-16 bill we will see a rapid reconfiguration of Universities internally and their positioning in the market. Recent moves by Universities like Aston and London South Bank to (re)introduce “Universities of Technology” will be replicated across the sector in a range of weird and wonderful ways.

But on the ground what does this have to do with me and doing an Microsoft Azure qualification?

Well to start with, I’ve never really understood the desire we often have in UK Higher Education to separate out provision into hard/soft technical/non-technical. However more importantly, regardless of my personal preferences, the pandemic has changed permanently the position of the digital in society and our lives. I am therefore interested in what qualifications that are discreet and are complimentary with the academic education received in a Business School. The quickest and easiest way to do it is simply to do a few myself because it also highlights to me any implementation problems.

More than this – extending the range of discreet (technical/non-technical) qualifications offered on programmes and in non-credit bearing wrapper activities makes sense to me for a number of reasons:

  • It stretches students in different ways that they might not anticipate;
  • Although most students will graduate into entirely non-technical roles, having an broad high level understanding of how the infrastructure of society actually works in the 21st century is no bad thing – especially if you have a role where you need to integration and work with technical and non-technical staff;
  • It opens the eyes of students to career options they had never considered.

There is however another reason to be doing this – because everyone else will do it – now this is a mixture of market intelligence and guesswork on my part. However it is pretty clear to me that one of the responses from the sector in the short-term is not to fundamentally redesign their provision (because no time) but to try and lean into the Govt agenda by adding a sprinkling of discreet qualifications across their programmes.

Furthermore the constant drip-feeding of risible negative stories about Universities and “low-value courses” is going to drive many to ramp up examples of technical skills gains in their marketing and programme design. So in the short-term at least being able to point to discreet qualification that can be gained across a three year period is going to be attractive from both a political and competitive advantage perspective.

Private providers are already ahead of many Universities on this front – last year I worked with an organisation as an adviser on some new qualifications designed for international markets. The underlying naming formula was always the same:

Academic qualification + Discreet technical qualification provided by well-known multi-national.

I have seen some numbers for these programmes and they have been phenomenally successful because they chime and make sense to a range of potential students against a backdrop of a changing post-covid society where being able to understand the interactive between cultural and technical factors is an advantage.

Now you might say “ah but this will not work with a HUMs course” and you could be right but that is because a lot of HUMs provision is going to be end up largely in RG Universities due to economies of scale. Students there often already have social capital and a range of other invisible advantages. However even then the Digital Humanities show a model that could lent itself to discreet technical qualifications and indeed already has in many Universities.

Moreover, many would argue that HUMs degrees are already highly technical:

Another critique is We cannot predict which skills will stand us in good stead – which I both entirely agree/disagree with. As someone who grew up on a council estate called “Dogshit Mountain” and had absolutely no social capital, if a discreet qualification helps a student get their first opportunity and is of absolutely no wide use – I simply don’t care because of the long-term benefit it provides.

Now excuse me I need to revise for my exam.

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