From education to employment

Higher Technical Education: An Alternative to Full-Time Three-Year Degrees

John Widdowson, Former College Principal


The forthcoming white paper presents a once in a generation opportunity to introduce a world class technical education and training system, supporting both young people and adults to build successful careers, whilst at the same time providing the higher technical skills demanded by industry and business.

A Post-16 System Dominated by Full-Time Level 6 Bachelor’s Degrees by age 25

For too long, too many young people have made the wrong choices at 16 and 18, deciding to study for qualifications which do not open the doors to the jobs and careers they want. This can lead to disappointment, disillusion and debt.

For too many young people, higher education presents a one size fits all approach in which the only valued and acceptable form is a full-time three-year bachelor’s degree in an academic discipline, preferably studied away from home. In many cases these courses do not have a clear line of sight to employment and fail to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a modern economy.

The stranglehold of the three-year full-time degree has resulted in a steep decline in the take up of short cycle HE. Usually those courses take up to two years to complete, including Higher Nationals and Foundation degrees. Both are aimed specifically at developing higher level skills, especially in STEM and other vocational disciplines and yet numbers studying for such awards have dropped significantly over the last decade.

It cannot be a coincidence that most students studying for higher skills qualifications at Level 5 do so in Further Education colleges, whilst even universities with an apparent vocational or technical focus only offer traditional Honours degrees.

The response to the Coronavirus crisis has shown the ability of some institutions to respond. That experience should not be lost, but embedded at the heart of the reformed system.

An Alternative Level 4-5 Higher Technical Education Pathway 

The highly anticipated reforms must provide a launchpad for a more diverse, wellstructured system of Higher Technical Education, ending the tyranny of the bachelor’s degree and restoring the confidence of students and employers that higher technical qualifications are an investment, not a cost.

Such a system must have a number of defining characteristics. Employers (and the professional bodies whose qualifications often provide a much sought-after licence to practice) must be closely involved in determining the content of the new curriculum.

The employer voice in setting standards should be equally strong, balancing traditional academic skills with those needed in business, industry and the professions. Imaginative curriculum design can produce a modular or unitised model which allows learning to take place when the leaner needs it, unconstrained by the restrictions of outdated concepts of the academic year and making full use of digital learning.

Given the current uncertainty about jobs, including apprenticeships, the boundaries between full and part time forms of study must be reduced, allowing movement between different modes as the economy recovers and opportunities grow.

Level 4-5 higher technical education courses should be based on a truly modular design which allows credit accumulation and transfer and a pattern of delivery which reflects employer demand to upskill current employees.

The reform of technical qualifications at Level 3 exemplified by the introduction of T levels gives an opportunity to young people to make career driven choices at 16 and will signpost high quality progression routes, valued by employers and chosen by more students.

Three Reforms for the White Paper

  1. First, the white paper should commit resources for a sustained programme of careers advice and guidance, promoting the value of technical qualifications at Level 4-5 to young people, parents, teachers and employers. Without this, it is likely that the continued marketing efforts of three-year degrees by Higher Education Institutes – primarily universities – will continue to distort the market and perpetuate the poor decisions made by many young people.
  2. Second, the white paper should set in train a process for every university and FE college to review their role and mission. The aim must be to continue the direction of travel set out for Institutes of Technology, but with greater ambition, using Higher Technical Education as the catalyst to transform existing institutions and where this proves impossible, create new ones.
  3. And third, the white paper must outline a comprehensive system of financial incentives to support the development of large-scale Level 4-5 higher technical education system in England. Providers need adequate capital investment and preferential funding for the delivery of targeted Level 4-5 vocational courses. And employers should receive financial support to release professional staff to work with delivery partners.

John Widdowson, Former College Principal

‘Revolutionary Forces’

In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that there were wider revolutionary forces at work on the UK’s economy before the virus outbreak.

Issues such as Brexit, the rise of automation in the workplace, longer working lives, and poor UK productivity have brought into even sharper focus, education and skills. NCFE and Campaign for Learning (CfL), published the first in the series of ‘Revolutionary Forces’ discussion papers on 6 July 2020.

In this Revolutionary Forces series different perspectives and proposed reforms for the post-16 education and training system have been brought together in one pamphlet, from expert stakeholders, think-tanks and educational professionals.

Building on the recommendations outlined in the first paper for flexible reforms that support economic and social renewal, this new paper, “Reforms for a Revolutionary Post-16 White Paper“, takes a deeper look at which areas need to be addressed.

The authors are:

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