The introduction of new practice-led technical qualifications will create “healthy competition” in the sub-degree education market and will not impinge on universities offering vocational training courses.
That is the view of Scott Kelly, lecturer in British politics at New York University in London and former policy adviser to former further education and skills minister John Hayes, who is the author of a new report on improving higher-level skills.
In his paper Raising Productivity by Improving Higher Technical Education: Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 Conundrum, launched on 16 July by the Higher Education Policy Institute in partnership with technical education provider Pearson, Dr Kelly calls on the government to introduce new measures to address the “complexity and opacity” of the current system, which have contributed to the nation’s poor productivity.
His recommendations include a clear set of institutions with a core mission based around technical and professional qualifications; a better accrediting and funding system for these qualifications; and reduced barriers to employer engagement.
Dr Kelly told Times Higher Education that he envisaged further education colleges playing the “larger role” in the provision of these new qualifications simply because the sector is “more practice-orientated” than higher education, but added that he would not want to see any “bias in the system”.
“If higher education institutions wanted to move more into this space, they would be perfectly able to do so,” he said, “but it would be a practice-led approach. So it would be different to the way most higher education is configured in that it would be guided largely by the needs of employers. There might be competition, but I think it will be healthy competition.”
Accreditation of these new qualifications would also be potentially by either further education or higher education institutions, but further education colleges that gained chartered status through the Institution for Further Education, a membership body for the sector set up in 2013, would “gain the ability to issue their own qualifications”.
The report is published just days after the government suggested in its new Productivity Plan that alternative providers should be able to offer degrees independently. THE also reported last month that the government is considering creating a new body to award vocational degrees for further education and private colleges, which would have echoes of the polytechnic awarding system.
Dr Kelly said that there should be clear distinctions between the new qualifications he was proposing and “stepping stone” degrees – academically-oriented courses with routes to full degrees – with the former funded by an entirely new body, while the latter continues to receive funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
This would also help prevent higher technical training from being “rebadged” as degrees and potentially “incentivising higher education institutions to develop innovative ways of delivering provision in collaboration with employers and colleges”.
“Funding should prioritise the pressing needs of businesses and learners rather than always being directed at yet more undergraduate places and lower-level apprenticeships,” he noted.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, told THE that the proposals would help to create a bridge between higher education and further education.
“We need more opportunities of all sorts and I don’t think the university sector should be scared of a really good, strong further education vocational sector because their interests are basically aligned,” he said.
“Some universities might turn around and say, ‘Hang on, we already train vast numbers of people, what is this problem it’s trying to tackle?’ But it’s still the case that there are loads of employers who say they can't get hold of the skills they need.”