From education to employment

New measures to boost the quality and take-up of higher technical education to help plug skill gaps and level up opportunities

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson announces Major Overhaul of Higher Technical Education 

Higher technical qualifications, like Diplomas and Foundation Degrees, can boost wages and plug skills gaps – but not enough people are studying them. 

New measures will make sure more people can access high-quality courses and employers can unlock the future workforce, as part of long-term plan to build a world class technical education system to level up skills and opportunities across the country.

Measures to boost the quality and take-up of higher technical education to help plug skill gaps, level up opportunities and support the UK’s economic recovery have been announced by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today (14 July 2020).

A major review last year revealed that Higher Technical Education – technical qualifications like Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas that sit between A Level and degrees – can unlock the skills employers need and lead to highly skilled, well paid jobs.

These Level 4 and 5 qualifications – lesser known qualifications that sit between A Level (Level 3) and degrees (Level 6), such as CertHE, DipHE and foundation degrees – were last year rebadged as Higher Technical Qualifications in a drive to attract more students to study them. 

Despite this, there are still not enough people studying them which is leading to skills shortages in sectors like construction, manufacturing and digital.

These qualifications are offered at Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) institutions, but research shows that the quality of courses on offer can be variable and it can be hard for students and employers to find the ones that are right for them.

The package of measures announced today in the “Reforming Higher Technical Education Government consultation response“, marks the next step in establishing a system of Higher Technical Education where students and employers can have confidence in high-quality courses that provide the skills they need to succeed.

The package includes:

  • Introducing newly approved higher technical qualifications from September 2022 supported by a government-backed brand and quality mark – qualifications will only be approved where they provide the skills employers need, providing much needed clarity for students and employers.
  • Working with Ofsted and the Office for Students to make sure the quality of courses is consistently high across HE and FE institutions – building on our Institutes of Technology so students and employers can be confident courses will be high quality.
  • Launching a new public awareness campaign – working in partnership with employers and careers advisers to showcase the benefits and the wide range of opportunities that studying a higher technical qualification can open up and making sure students get the right information, advice and guidance to make informed choices.

Today’s announcement follows the Education Secretary’s FE speech where Gavin Williamson pledged to publish a Skills White Paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, which will strive toward high quality qualifications based on employer-led standards.


It also follows the significant investment announced by the Chancellor to support young people’s employment prospects – which includes a new ‘kickstart’ scheme to create work placements for young people on Universal Credit, £111 million investment to triple the number of traineeships available across England, supporting employers to create more apprenticeships opportunities, new investment to support an additional quarter of a million people with careers advice, and more.

Sector Response

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“For too long we have been training people for the jobs of yesterday instead of the jobs of today and tomorrow.

“Employers are struggling to find the computer programmers, engineers, electricians and technicians they need, and students of all ages are missing out on the high skill, high wage jobs that higher technical education can lead to.

“The measures I have announced today will boost the quality and take-up of these qualifications to help plug skill gaps, level up opportunities and support our economic recovery.”

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Phil Beach CBE, Executive Director of Vocational and Technical Qualifications at Ofqual said:

“I am delighted that Ofqual will be supporting the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to achieve their aims for these important qualifications. We want employers to have the confidence in these qualifications that they do in others. Alignment with employer-led occupational standards will be an important feature of Higher Technical Qualifications. I’m sure that recognised awarding organisations will want to play their active part in delivering them.”

The government’s reforms retain the established regulatory framework. Awarding organisations will need to be recognised by Ofqual or the Office for Students in order to submit qualifications to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (the Institute) for approval. Ofqual will provide advice to the Institute during the approvals process and will implement a regulatory approach to support the expected quality standards.

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Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education said:

“COVID-19 has really focused public attention on the quality of training at all levels, and the role it can play in economic recovery.

“The Institute has a track record of working closely with employers to deliver high-quality qualifications that make a real difference to people’s lives.

“We are looking forward to starting our work on higher technical qualifications to help provide the skills our economy needs.”

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Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Executive Association of Colleges (AoC) said:

“Today’s measures take forwards a key recommendation of the Post 18 review – that government should act to improve the status of higher technical qualifications. There are very low numbers studying at this level in England, partly because young people are channelled towards full-time degrees and partly because of the obstacles in the way of adult reskill at other points in their lives.

“The pandemic has shown that the UK needs a plan for skills. DfE’s plans focus first on digital, health and construction skills. Colleges have a huge role to play in providing routes into skilled work, meanwhile DfE should act on other Post 18 review recommendations including the need to provide funding and to level up financial support for courses at Level 4 and 5.”

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Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) said:

“Awarding Bodies want to play a leading role in meeting the skills and productivity needs of the nation. We agree with the government that there has not been enough focus and investment in higher technical education (HTE) spanning decades. For too long we’ve prioritised young learners jumping straight from Level 3 to Level 6 at the expense of adult learners. It is what the Augar Review called the ‘missing middle’ in our post-18 skills and FE system.

“We wholeheartedly support the need for a more balanced qualifications framework that allows adults in-work to access a range of intermediate qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 at any stage in their careers. However, the Federation does not believe that by placing artificial restrictions on the market in future HTE qualifications, including a new government-led brand and process will necessarily deliver better outcomes. There is no evidence that a top-down, Whitehall-run qualifications system will deliver the innovation, agility, resilience and responsiveness that will be required as the country emerges from Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition.”

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Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) Comments:

“We understand why the government is doing this and in the same way that the introduction of apprenticeship standards has improved the quality of apprenticeships, this initiative could improve the quality of technical education.  

“But this same old siloed approach is not going to get us anywhere and there’s a real danger that the government just repeats past mistakes.  Instead we need to see reforms to technical education closely aligned with apprenticeships at all levels by ensuring for example that the learner can progress onto a high level apprenticeship after completing a T level.  The evidence shows that progression with work based learning options often leads to sustainable employment and good salaries.”

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Kirstie Donnelly, CEO City & Guilds Group said:

“We welcome the Government’s focus on higher level technical education as a route into meaningful employment, or a way of reskilling into new careers. In our recent report, Recovery and Resilience, we called for the £2.5bn as yet unspent National Skills Fund (NSF) to be urgently deployed to support adults with level 3 and above qualifications reskilling into new industries post-covid.

“However, what employers and learners need now is a coherent technical education system that develops the skills most needed to help plug post-Brexit skills gaps and reduce unemployment as we re-shape our economy after Covid. What we don’t need is a return to a QCF under another guise, or a policy direction that leads to a highly centralised system, at a time when the real urgency is agility, speed and responsiveness aligned to real time local labour market intelligence and demand.  Trusted technical education and employer brands already exist and are valued, they simply need the support of Government to invest in infrastructure and promotion of a new narrative for higher technical education options.

“We’ve seen over the past six months that the world can digitise itself at speed and there are online, bitesize and flexible ways for adults to reskill quickly back into work. We’d like to see unused NSF funding made broad in its criteria to provide quick access to any reskilling or upskilling programme that supports employment and skills needs now.  This should not just ladder into long, formal higher level qualifications or traditional classroom-based learning, as important as these are in the mix, but be used to help support new ways of acquiring higher level skills.

“While we agree about the vital importance of careers advice in helping people to understand the value of technical education, the improved careers advice should focus less on what qualifications are available and more on the skills most needed to find meaningful work. This advice must focus on the development opportunities available across different industries at local and devolved regions and then have the dexterity and flexibility built into the system to fund these as they are required.

“To create a technical education system that really is world class and learners choose to engage with, what we need now is not consultations and complex systems but flexibility and agility to help as many people as possible back into work now and raise skills levels for all.”

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Emily Jones, Head of Research at L&W (Learning and Work Institute) said:

“The ‘missing middle’ in higher technical education at Level 4 and 5 poses challenges for the economy, society and individuals – and is a lost opportunity. We welcome today’s announcement, which indicates that the government is serious about boosting the take-up and quality of higher technical education, with national measures to address both supply and demand, and to raise the status of these qualifications.

“Addressing these challenges requires action at a local level too. Learning and Work Institute is working with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and stakeholders in two local areas to develop ways to boost demand and provision to meet local skills needs. While this work seeks to address long-standing challenges, it is particularly important now. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, automation of jobs and the end of free movement are just three key reasons why adults need opportunities to upskill and retrain into new roles. Today’s announcement hopefully provides a strong framework for addressing these challenges.”

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Ian Pretty, Chief Executive of the Collab Group said:

“We are pleased to see the government taking forward the agenda of improving the higher technical education offer for learners in England. Compared to other major European countries, we have relatively low numbers of people undertaking study at L4-5 so a commitment to improve quality and boost numbers is undoubtedly welcome.

“There are still a number of questions that remain around access to maintenance support, what the provider base will look like and the how the government will support a flexible funding system that allows people to study in a way that suits them. Collab Group and our colleges are committed to working with Government and other stakeholders to ensure that reforms to higher technical qualifications are a success.”

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Matthew Percival, CBI People and Skills Director, said:

“Higher technical qualifications help people develop the skills that build careers. It’s fantastic to see this commitment from Government to boost their uptake.

“Putting employers in the driving seat will give them confidence that courses on offer meet their needs.

“With four-fifths of employers expecting to increase higher skilled roles in the coming years, offering clear progression routes through higher technical qualifications will be essential to creating a sustainable and inclusive future economy.”

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, chair of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, said:

“At the present time there is a serious mismatch between the skills and knowledge delivered by our education system and the needs of our economy and society (34% of graduates are in non-graduate jobs, and industry faces a persistent shortage of technical skills).

“This announcement of a major reform of Higher Technical Education, together with the introduction of T Levels, should go a long way to ending this mismatch and should be strongly supported by all political parties and industry.”

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A spokesperson for Universities UK said:

“It is important that prospective students are given access to information and advice to help them make the right choice for them and their career aspirations – whether this is in FE, HE, a National College or Institute of Technology and full time or flexible study.

“Over 40% of courses currently offered by universities have a technical, professional or vocational focus, and are equipping people for vital careers in the public sector such as nursing, and meeting the skills needs of growing industries from robotics to green energy. Ensuring more individuals progress past Level 3 qualifications will be important to meet employers’ skills needs and boost social mobility, and we will work with the government and Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to ensure there are clear pathways for learners to progress to Level 6 or 7 study should they wish to.”

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Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson Layla Moran said:

“Ministers have extolled Further Education for years, yet chosen to make deep cuts. This announcement risk being no different – strong on rhetoric but low on substance.

“Introducing new qualifications will be no use without the funding to back it up. We need to see unprecedented investment in skills for young people coming out of this crisis so that no-one is left behind”

Introduction of T Levels from September 2020

These reforms build on work already underway to transform technical and vocational education in this country, including the introduction of new T Levels from September, working with employers to create more high–quality apprenticeship opportunities and establishing a network of Institutes of Technology, backed by up to £290 million.

Higher technical qualifications will provide a natural progression route for young people taking new T Levels from 2020 or A Levels, and adults looking to upskill or retrain, enabling them to take the next step up and gain higher technical skills in key subjects like STEM.

Higher technical courses are offered at universities and FE colleges – such as Nottingham Trent University and New College Durham – and National Colleges, like the National College for Digital Skills, are well placed to expand in this area.

Institutes of Technology

The Government’s network of Institutes of Technology – unique collaborations between universities, FE colleges, and leading employers – also specialise in delivering high-quality Higher Technical Education and training in STEM subjects, such as digital, advanced manufacturing and engineering that will provide employers with the skilled workforce they need.

The measure announced today will complement the Government’s review of post-18 education to ensure the system is joined up, accessible and encourages the development of the skills the country needs.

These arrangements strengthen the opportunities for employers to input into these Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications. Employer contributions in this way are important to the shape and success of these qualifications, which are vital for sustaining future workforces across the economy.

This national approval scheme will be delivered through the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. It will see qualifications only being approved where they meet employer-led occupational standards. Newly approved qualifications in the digital route are expected to be available from September 2022. Qualifications in the Construction route and Health and science route are expected to be available from September 2023.

Level 3 Review

The Government is also reviewing post-16 qualifications at Level 3 and below to make sure that all qualifications taken by students are high quality and lead to employment or further study.

According to the CBI more than three-quarters (79%) of businesses expect to increase the number of higher-skilled roles over the coming years – boosting demand for the specialist skills that higher technical qualifications provide.

In England just 1 in 10 adults hold a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification – one of the lowest rates in the OECD – there are over 4,000 qualifications on offer and over 40% have 5 students or fewer studying them.

Students who gain these qualifications in Science, Technology, and Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects can earn up to £5,000 more a year than people with degrees from many Non-Russell Group universities – and the courses are shorter and cheaper than a typical degree.

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