Sector experts sound warnings over narrowing of HE routes

A report into higher technical education launched this week warned of an “acute danger” of creating two classes of learners in the UK: those going on to undertake full degrees or other higher technical qualifications by the age of 30, currently around 50% of the learner cohort; and a “forgotten half”, who go on to do no further higher education.

It says action to tackle a fall of 25% in enrolments to higher technical education (HTE) courses in the five years before the pandemic – while the take-up of full degrees rose 8% over the same period – is a key priority for British skills and education policy.

The Augar Review of post-18 education reached a similar conclusion, warning that the low take-up in Level 4 and 5 higher technical qualifications – as opposed to Level 6 full degrees – could be seen as a barrier to widening participation in higher technical education.

Meanwhile, a new paper by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) released on Thursday, said the government’s controversial reforms to Level 3 qualifications, including the removal of funding for Business and Technology Education Council qualifications (commonly known as BTECs), risk closing off a useful and proven route for students from a wide range of backgrounds, including those hoping to reach higher education.

A tertiary sector view

A former British Conservative universities and science minister urged public policy-makers in the UK to “think less in terms of higher education and more in terms of a tertiary sector that includes colleges, technical training institutes and independent training providers” – as well as universities – to solve the country’s skills shortages.

Lord Jo Johnson of Marylebone was speaking at the launch of the new report on revitalising the UK’s HTE sector and what the implications of a “skills revolution” might be for the UK government’s objective of “levelling up” left-behind old industrial heartlands.

Despite his ministerial roles in a previous Conservative UK government, Johnson – whose older brother is the current British prime minister – let rip over the mixed messaging and confusion about what the Department of Education and the current administration wants from the higher education sector in terms of academic and vocational provision.

Attacks from government circles “on the very institutions that are going to enable it to deliver on its own policies to put in place more higher technical education” are particularly unhelpful, Lord Johnson told his audience at the official launch on 27 April of the new report from the Lifelong Education Commission (LEC), titled The Future of Higher Technical Education in England: Expanding opportunity for all.

Johnson called for more clarity from government and complained messaging shifted from “sensible positions like, ‘You don’t have to do a degree’ and wanting to develop high quality skills-based alternative routes to the workplace through apprenticeships”, to “openly discouraging and confusing messages like, ‘Too many young people go to university’ and so on”.

25% fall in higher technical enrolments

Chris Skidmore, chairman of the LEC, which published the report in collaboration with independent think tank ResPublica and the University of Salford, said at the launch: “Higher Technical Education has too often been treated as the overlooked stage of the education sector, despite having a rich and proud tradition to back it up.

“The decline of specialist technical colleges in the 1990s led to an explosion in higher education, but it also left huge swathes of England’s learners without the skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Skidmore, who, like Jo Johnson, served as a Conservative universities minister, said: “Supercharging higher technical education should be priority number one in the government's plan to kickstart a skills revolution in the UK.”

He said the legislative framework was already in place with the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, with a suite of new initiatives ranging from establishing local skills improvement plans across the country, aimed at making technical skills training more responsive to local needs, to launching nine new employer-led institutes of technology to boost technical skills in STEM subjects.

The government also plans to develop higher technical qualifications in collaboration with employers and has announced a lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) to fund up to the equivalent of four years’ post-18 education.

“However, to make the most of this golden opportunity, policy-makers must choose the right approach,” said Skidmore.

Plugging the skills gap

Professor Helen Marshall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, told the event launching the LEC report: “Increasing the take-up of higher technical education will be critical to plugging skills gaps in key sectors, driving economic growth and levelling up opportunity across the country.

“However, there are barriers to this. There is a lack of understanding amongst students, teachers, and employers about what higher technical education is and why it’s valuable, and there is a wrongly perceived lower level of prestige associated with these courses when compared to other higher education routes.”

To address these challenges, the LEC report recommends the government funds a promotional campaign for the new institutes of technology, with two distinct national information campaigns promoting HTE: one focusing on 16-18 year-old learners, and another aimed at employers and experienced workers looking to upskill or reskill.

Raise the prestige of HTE

The LEC report also recommends measures to raise the prestige of higher technical qualifications in the education sector, by:

• Committing further funding rounds for institutes of technology that can demonstrate they are having a positive effect on supporting local economic specialisms and clusters;

• Delivering a flexible LLE for HTE on an equal basis to full degrees and removing the equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQ) rule to allow learners to gain access to funding for qualifications at a lower level than ones they currently hold, and ensuring that the LLE is additional to any student loans already held by individuals;

• Allowing access to maintenance support funding for HTE students on an equal basis (to degree students), to send a clear message that society values technical education as much as it does time spent on degrees; and

• Improving career options, information, advice and guidance at all ages for higher technical options post-16.

Think in terms of tertiary sector

Lord Johnson told the launch of the LEC report that the key was “thinking less of an HE sector and more in terms of a tertiary sector that includes colleges, technical training institutes and independent training providers” and closing down “sterile and tedious debate” about the percentage of young people going into higher education.

He described that as a “cul-de-sac” and said the focus should be on the “very large proportion of people without any tertiary education”, adding that if the UK is going to build a knowledge economy capable of competing with technologically advanced countries like Canada, South Korea and Japan, it needs a similar tertiary participation rate.

“Those countries have rates in the high 60s and even 70%,” he said.

If there was one thing to highlight in the LEC report’s recommendations, Johnson said it would be to “get rid of the ELQ restriction” which prevent learners from accessing funding support if the course they need to reskill leads to a lower-level qualification than what they already have in another subject.

“That’s a clear barrier to reskilling and makes a nonsense of the lifelong entitlement that is one of the centrepieces of government skills policy,” said Johnson.

Fears over future funding for BTECs

On 28 April, the day after the LEC report was released, the other new paper on the skills training crisis in the UK, Holding Talent Back? What is next for the future of Level 3? was published by HEPI.

In the foreword, Lord David Willetts, another former minister for universities and science, wrote: “Every year about 240,000 BTEC Level 3 Nationals are completed across the UK, as part of a one- or two-year study programme, largely by students aged 16 to 18, as well as 19 and over.

“Yet the government’s proposal to remove the funding for them is proceeding with little wider public debate and challenge. Imagine by contrast that the government were planning to remove the funding for A Levels. There would be intense public and political debate going beyond the practitioners who are close to the issue.”

In her chapter in the HEPI report, Mary Curnock Cook, non-executive director and chair of Pearson Education Ltd, said: “With good reason, many commentators are worried about the impact on equality and diversity of the proposed changes to funding for BTECs and other Level 3 applied general qualifications.

“The Department for Education’s own impact assessment indicates that fewer students are likely to achieve Level 3 because of these reforms. This is odd because Level 3, as well as being the springboard for progression to higher education, is also the foundation on which the government’s Level 4/Level 5 and higher technical skills ambitions will be built.”

In his chapter, Professor Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London and director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said: “Defunding many BTECs could set back the progress made in widening access to higher education from those from low participation neighbourhoods by 10 years.

“… [There is] a strong feeling that BTECs represent a route into higher education uniquely suited to the needs of particular groups of students, many of whom are from widening access backgrounds.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.