From education to employment

How to achieve genuine flexibility in lifelong learning

Dr Marius Ostrowski, senior policy researcher for the Lifelong Education Commission

A chief aim of the Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is to expand the roster of technical qualifications available to learners in a way that responds to their needs, and those of their local communities. This is no doubt a noble policy objective, but one that, on closer inspection, falls short of giving the UK a truly integrated education system.

Any attempt to navigate the UK’s skills and education debate inevitably means entering a quagmire of unresolved conflicts and internecine struggles. Take the government’s flagship T-levels – a new alternative to A-levels that also sits at level 3 on the formal qualification level scale, which combines classroom teaching with industry placements. This tentative bid to produce a hybrid qualification that opens doors to different routes into Further and Higher Education has emerged amidst a heated debate on the proper status of vocational versus academic qualifications.

Unfortunately – and perhaps as a direct result of timid policymakers facing passionate voices on both sides – the T-levels scheme and the Skills Bill in general does not go far enough in integrating academic and vocational education ‘streams’.

For a start, it comes no nearer to overcoming the long-standing divide between these two ‘streams’ in the post-16 space. For decades, education at level 4 and above has been asymmetrically split between traditional university degrees and certificates on the one hand, and apprenticeships/NVQs on the other. The group most let down by this has been those with interests and abilities that bridge the academic-vocational divide.

The inflexibility of this system is as needless as it is frustrating. Even under the much-heralded T-levels, this basic structure remains unreformed; an 18-year-old undertaking the qualification still must ultimately choose between academic (FHEQ) or vocational (RQF) ‘paths’ to gaining qualifications later on.

With lifelong learning, the effects of this siloed logic become even more sharply pronounced. Under the current regime, individuals looking to change their professional stars are still forced to make daunting ‘career jumps’, rather than steadier ‘career shifts’. Instead of certifying their abilities by featuring a blend of academic and vocational qualifications on their portfolios, career-jumpers usually have to reorient themselves wholesale to an entirely different ‘path’.

This narrow focus creates a number of problems. If someone wants to pursue higher academic study but only has school-age vocational qualifications on their CV, they are likely to fall short of the standards of many university courses. In the absence of dedicated access courses, their only option may be to work back through school-level qualifications like A-Levels – adding years of laborious rote-learning to the already costly process of retraining.

For many adult learners with other time and financial commitments, this is simply not viable. Equally, for those individuals who hold academic degrees but want to retrain in a vocational domain, starting back at square one is often the only way forward.

For such people, having no ‘academic parity’ option – where a few rungs can be skipped in cases where academic merit justifies it – can be a huge drag on their forward progress. The Government’s ‘Equivalent or Lower Qualification’ rule unfortunately only magnifies these issues, preventing prospective learners from accessing funding for qualifications at the same level as, or below, those they already hold.

Nor does the Skills Bill put academic and vocational education on a genuinely equal footing, an innovation which would have at least redressed a fundamental imbalance in UK education.

During the Bill’s second reading in the Commons, former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that the government has chosen to prioritise overcoming the UK’s international deficit in qualifications between A-levels and university degrees. This is all well and good, but such a focus on supercharging level 4 and 5 courses must be carefully balanced if it is not almost inevitably to lead to favouring Higher Education at the cost of neglecting Further Education.

For example, by encouraging vocational providers to ‘move up’ into offering higher apprenticeships, and academic providers to ‘move down’ into certificates and foundational degrees, policymakers have engineered what former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore called a ‘divide and rule’ situation, whereby HE institutions can use their accreditation privileges to poach all the best learners away from FE.

Paradoxically, the Bill also tends to flatten key distinctions between academic and vocational skills. By couching everything in the language of ‘upskilling’, it presupposes that every qualification level — from entry-level up to Level 8 – provides an equivalent, largely interchangeable amount of knowledge, either through classroom study or ‘on-the-job’ practical experience.

It assumes that our progress in gaining this knowledge is ‘locked in’ once we successfully pass any one of these levels. By that logic, ‘really good learners’ should be able to seamlessly transfer diagonally (across and up) from one ‘stream’ to another, continuing to rise through the qualification levels.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case – and learners looking to make in-roads in a new domain will usually have to restart their learning from scratch with very little support from the Government. By failing to make provisions for these path-jumpers, the Skills Bill lets a whole group of promising upskillers fall into a chasm at the heart of the education system.

If true flexibility is to be achieved here, policymakers simply must address this arbitrary and archaic divide between academic and vocational learning. What we need is a hybrid system worth the name.

Dr Marius S. Ostrowski is Senior Public Policy Researcher at ResPublica, leading policy research and development for the Lifelong Education Commission. He is on Twitter as @mariusostrowski.

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