English technical education plans ‘ignore’ universities’ role

New plans for levels 4 and 5 are a ‘mixed bag’ for universities, experts say

July 12, 2019

Proposals aimed at reinvigorating England’s level 4 and 5 qualifications, immediately below full degrees, ignore the role of universities in providing these courses and could add unnecessary bureaucracy, experts have warned.

In a move that follows the Augar review’s calls to raise the status of vocational education, the Department for Education has called for levels 4 and 5 to be rebranded in a bid to boost their take-up. In the proposals, published on 8 July, the DfE said they should be rebadged as Higher Technical Qualifications and awarded a quality mark by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

The DfE said that it wanted higher technical qualifications to become “a positive and popular choice” for younger students and for those who want to upskill and retrain.

Currently, level 4 and 5 qualifications are offered at universities, further education colleges and alternative providers – but only 10 per cent of UK adults hold these qualifications as their highest award.

The consultation also proposes that those taking these qualifications be entitled to the same financial support as those undertaking degrees, as recommended in the Augar review. The qualifications would be regulated by Ofqual, and the Office for Students would develop a set of technical ongoing registration conditions for providers of these courses.

Andy Westwood, vice-dean for social responsibility at the University of Manchester, welcomed the focus on what the Augar report called the “missing middle” between further education and higher education.

However, Professor Westwood pointed out that many universities, particularly post-92 institutions, already offer level 4 and 5 qualifications. The consultation “doesn’t recognise the part that universities have to play, and that’s the biggest problem”, he added.

“If I was a university that traditionally offers this stuff, I’d be very concerned. You are not going to muck about applying to the [Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education] for awarding status for every qualification. You award your own degrees; why would you award somebody else’s level 4 and 5 [qualifications], if you think you can do a better job?”

In essence this is an extension of the planned T levels pathway, Professor Westwood said. “It’s a real shame that they haven’t thought about the different models for awarding qualifications," he added. "It’s a mistake to ignore the university route.”

A 2018 report, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, called for universities to take full charge of levels 4 and 5 to address the UK’s growing skills gap. 

Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association of modern universities, said measures to raise the profile of these little-understood awards “are sensible and should be supported”.

However, additions to current OfS registration conditions for this specific form of higher education need to be reasonable and proportionate, he added. “Without this light touch there is a risk that such demands will impose an increased bureaucratic burden on high-quality providers, such as modern universities, to ensure baseline compliance among smaller, newer providers,” he said.

Conor Moss, group director for business engagement, skills and employability at Sheffield Hallam University, said it would be “a mixed picture for universities”.

“With the IfA taking the lead on the approval of the qualifications, there is a worry that the process could become bureaucratic and slow when employer-led qualifications need to be agile and flexible, as things change incredibly quickly," he added.

It was important, he continued, that the DfE recognises the role universities have to play in this area, but also “the opportunity for really innovative FE and HE collaboration working in partnership with employers and Local Enterprise Partnerships”.


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