Dead end for vocational route?

July 9, 2004

Sub-degree qualifications are being sidelined to everyone's cost, Ewart Keep and Ken Mayhew say.

There seem to be three key assumptions in the Government's plans for higher education expansion: that the economy needs more graduates, that expanding higher education can promote social justice by giving those from low socioeconomic backgrounds access to high-paying jobs, and that expansion will not damage the rest of the vocational education and training system.

But the growth of higher education is likely to put severe pressure on other types of vocational education and training as more young people are sucked into academic learning to hit the 50 per cent target. Nearly everyone in the 18 to 30 age cohort who achieves an A level or equivalent vocational qualification will need to enter higher education, which could lead to a situation in which such Level 3 qualifications are no longer seen as a valid end in their own right.

The proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds in England and Wales seeking vocational rather than academic qualifications is lower than it was in 1989. This reflects a problem that has fed the expansion of higher education - the inability to establish and maintain a viable, high-quality work-based apprenticeship route. Higher education expansion will make the failure of apprenticeship - at least as anything other than a low-status dumping ground for less able youngsters - a self-fulfilling prophecy. The long-term future for current models of apprenticeship, outside a few sectors, such as engineering, is likely to be one of providing an alternative to school and further education for passing on Level 2 skills.

Of course, much higher education provision is vocational (for example, medicine, engineering and law), but historically it has operated at Level 4. Are we in danger of meeting Level 3 skills gaps - created in part by employers' failure to sustain a high-quality apprenticeship route - through Level 4 higher education provision? This may prove to be a costly and ultimately dysfunctional solution - not least because many of the skills needed in craft and intermediate occupations are best created in the workplace where they are used.

The consequences for the vocational route below Level 4 of expanding higher education would appear to be seriously damaging in the long term, too. The status of education and training routes is bound up with the status of the jobs they lead to. If a mass higher education system feeds professional, managerial, associate professional, technician and some craft occupation labour markets, what is left for the rest of the system? Preparation for what will often be low-status and low-paid work for the "bottom half" would appear to be the answer.

Recent research shows that vocational study at ages 16 to 17 already tends to be associated with low GCSE scores, high levels of truancy, less skilled parents, life in social rented accommodation, and state rather than private education. The likelihood must be that these characteristics will become more marked as the academic route into higher education attracts ever more of even those with middling GCSE scores.

Ewart Keep is deputy director and Ken Mayhew director of the Economic and Social Research Council Research Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance. They discuss these issues in an article published next week in The Oxford Review of Economic Policy .

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