There’s a gap in our higher education system, between the skills people leave school with, and what some of them go on to learn in their degrees. This gap is important and growing, and one which the further education sector is ideally placed to help fill.
It is important, because parents and students want education, above all else, to be a better preparation for work and life. Important because many of those not going to university will not be able to access a high quality apprenticeship at the right level, irrespective of government targets to get to 3 million apprentices. These people need another pathway to a technical education, and so does the country.
The gap is growing for two reasons – one of supply, and one of demand. There are more people than ever choosing to study technical and professional courses in higher education. Yet despite this, the common refrain from employers, government and society is that the technical and professional skills gap is also growing year on year.
That is because many traditional degree courses are insufficiently focused on the specific skills in demand, and as a result a growing number of graduates are not well qualified for many of the jobs available.
Additionally, our further education sector sits on the edge of a funding precipice and may suffer damage for years to come. Proper funding of further education would provide a huge boost to British businesses and help fill the growing skills gap.
So higher and further education must now think much harder not only about increasing participation, but also about how to equip young people with the skills that today’s careers demand.
With this in mind, three years ago the coalition government made a concerted attempt to open up some parts of the higher education system to “alternative providers” – to improve the breadth and innovation of the UK’s already world-class higher education system.
Many of these alternative providers have for several years added bandwidth and diversity to our system with innovative, high quality programmes. But a minority, following the change in policy to encourage alternative provision, put the pursuit of their own growth above the quality of their offer to students. This has caused reputational damage beyond just those involved.
This issue is very important to Pearson because we are responsible for the standards of Higher National Certificates and Diplomas – HNCs and HNDs. Higher Nationals have been an important part of the UK higher education landscape for nearly a century. They have a strong focus on technical skills with a heritage of employer recognition, and increasingly provide an alternative route into university education.
As an awarding organisation, our role is to define what standards students should attain, check the college has adequate resources to run the qualification, and quality assure that certificates are deserved. We’ve continued to fulfil this role. But I regret that we didn’t predict the extent of the rise in student numbers when the government moved to diversify the system, although we have acted quickly since then to block any recruitment lacking in integrity and require improvements in quality. We'll do everything in our power to preserve the quality and great reputation of BTEC Higher Nationals.
The country as a whole needs more qualifications that bridge the gap between school and full degree, between academic and work-related courses. Higher Nationals, like some foundation degrees, have always played a very important role in this regard, and many students have benefitted from the skills they define and also the fact that they provide a first step towards a technical degree. I’m totally committed to investing in the long-term health of Higher Nationals, to ensure they meet the needs of students, employers and higher education and further education institutions. The demand for these qualifications is growing, and will continue to do so.
Today, the Higher Education Policy Institute and Pearson publish a detailed report on the future landscape for higher technical skills.
I hope that we’ll get a real debate about the desperate need for better qualifications and training, and prompt some action on the parts of institutions, employers – and awarding bodies like Pearson.
Rod Bristow is president of Pearson UK