Level 4-5 Higher Technical Education (HTE), soon to be more widely recognised outside the realm of sector jargon as HTQs, remains a hot topic in the education policy. These qualifications are consistently touted by Government as vital to addressing long-term declines in skills and productivity and as enablers of levelling up. This rhetoric is then usually coupled with how these qualifications can grow and flourish at traditional HE providers and through Institutes of Technology.
What is rarely mentioned, however, is that FE colleges actually deliver the majority of these qualifications (61% in 2019/20) and have largely always done so. Collab Group has recently concluded an extensive research project into college provision of level 4/5 HTE that demonstrates why FE colleges, particularly those of a larger size or that sit within group structures, are best placed to remain the key providers of these qualifications. However, colleges are only able to deliver outstanding education so long as Government is willing to invest and enable them to meet its own ambitious skills agenda.
In terms of levelling up, the relationship between colleges and place is undeniable. On average, students at colleges live closer to their places of study and are from more deprived areas than those at universities. Whilst universities also hold links to place, this is better geared towards raising the profile of these areas through ground-breaking research. It is the responsibility of colleges, however, to implement these discoveries into their curriculum to meet the needs of local businesses. In addition, colleges are also more likely to engage with local employers in curriculum design and delivery than universities. We have found a close alignment between areas our colleges are looking to grow provision in and local target areas of growth such as digital, construction and engineering.
In terms of teaching, staff from our colleges are frequently ‘dual professionals’; those from industry who have moved to teach others their trade. Whilst notoriously a challenge to recruit, having a staff of this calibre is vital for ensuring teaching best reflects industry practices and demands. Furthermore, as the burden of assessing, delivering and maintaining quality at level 4-5 is so high, the greater resource pools of larger colleges or groups give these an advantage over smaller institutions.
Finally, we have found our colleges charge lower fees for these qualifications than universities overall; the average fee at Collab Group colleges is £6,700 whilst it is £9,000 at universities. There is substantial evidence that mature learners are more price-sensitive than younger cohorts, making affordability key to ensuring those whom the Government wishes to upskill are able to do. We have also found that our colleges are more willing to run smaller class sizes than universities. Whilst there are no direct pedagogical advantages to this per se, it makes it easier to ensure all students have adequate access to expensive equipment, as well as enabling a more personalised supportive learning environment.
Providers Face Substantial Barriers
That being said, all providers face substantial barriers to the strong delivery of L4/5 courses. These are extensive and details can be found elsewhere. To ensure strong delivery, Government must be willing and able to deliver policies that ease the burden on providers. For instance, whilst there have been announcements of financial support for providers to aid the delivery of HTQs, there is no equivalent to the T Levels capital fund. Such a fund would greatly assist cash-strapped providers to make the necessary investment in equipment and facilities to ensure learning reaches industry standards.
Moreover, with recruitment in the sector as challenging as it is at present, colleges would also benefit from support to pay teaching staff wages that are at least somewhat competitive with what is offered by industry. The Government could also help to support businesses to release staff to work with delivery partners.
Lifelong Loan Entitlement
The introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement also provides opportunities to grow participation. However, its implementation must reflect the needs of those to whom technical re-skilling is an option. For instance, the availability of adequate maintenance loans with relaxed repayment terms is vital for those with concerns about affordability. Furthermore, the removal of rules that prevent learners from accessing funding for qualifications at an equivalent or lower level than what they already hold is another prerequisite for LLE to be impactful.
Collab Group, therefore, believes there is a strong case to be made for colleges to take the lead in the delivery of HTE/HTQs. The impetus is now on Government to ensure it does all it can to enable providers to deliver high-quality skills education to the widest market.