Boris Johnson: Student mechanics are eggheads too

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The Independent Online

OK, then, all you smarty-pants who think it was a mistake to get rid of the polytechnics.

This is a question for all those who think we have far too many students doing courses at university, when what they need are old-fashioned vocational courses.

Give me a good example of a good vocational education. Let's try to think of a course that really means getting your hands dirty, and using oily rags, and learning how to take things apart and put them together again.

I'm thinking big ends. I'm thinking carburettors. That's right: what could be more practical than motor engineering, eh?

It's about lying under the machine and listening to the engine and letting the sump drip on to your face, and on the face of it motor engineering is about a million miles away from one of your airy-fairy academic degrees.

If you know how to strip down an engine or a suspension, then you are the practitioner of a craft, a trade. You are one of the guys in blue overalls who is able to pick up a solenoid and tell you whether or not the alternator's gone. But you don't need a degree to do that, do you? You don't need any of that fancy book-learning, hmm?

That, at least, is the belief of the many who think it is still easy to make a distinction between the academic and the vocational. That is the bifurcation of the human mind insisted upon by all those who say that too many of our young people have been lured into doing degrees when they should be learning to use their hands and to be happy with their lot.

Well, the other day we were standing in our hard hats in the glorious new eco-friendly hangar being built for motorsport instruction at Oxford Brookes University. In a few short months the place will be full of students testing tyre strengths, braking distances and trying to make outrageously fast machines go that little bit faster.

There are already 150 motorsport students at Oxford Brookes, and they are heading for a business that already employs 40,000 people in this country, which has a turnover of £7bn, and which invests more as a proportion in research and development than any other industry. In one sense it is true that they are grease-monkeys and spanner-wielders, because they certainly know how to use a spanner.

I doubt very much whether Oxford Brookes will allow them to have a Pirelli calendar on the wall, but the atmosphere and the sound effects will be not so very unlike garages across the country.

And yet it would be a fatal mistake to think that there is not a deeply academic side to all this. This is about making tiny improvements in performance, and if you want to make your brakes that much more effective at speed, you may want to know how a plate will vibrate under pressure, and you can't very easily predict how a plate will vibrate under pressure unless you can do partial differential equations.

And the point is that these students can. These rude mechanicals, lying on their backs and listening to Virgin Radio, can also cut the mustard with the x curve and the y curve, and if that isn't academic, I don't know what is.

Of course, it would be fair to say that the state of maths and physics in this country is so worrying that they often need help when they get here. Too many of the entrants to Brookes still need remedial mathematics, and the lecturers at Brookes are scathing about the AS-level, and its attempts to cram enough maths in one year.

But about 40 of the 150 entrants come here with straight As in maths and A-level physics; and they will leave with their understanding of those disciplines enlarged not only practically, but also theoretically.

As it happens, they will also leave with the prospect of earning £20,000 to £22,000 as soon as they join the industry, because they will be so vocationally prepared as to be able to dive straight in.

So, here's my message to all the saloon-bar bores who say that it was a terrible mistake to abolish the division between universities and polytechnics, and that it is easy to make a distinction between academic and vocational courses: if you can get an A in A-level physics, or if you could sit down, now, and solve a partial differential equation, then I might be prepared to take you seriously.

The writer is the Conservatives' Higher Education spokesman