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Why FE should lead on High Technical Qualifications

Ian Pretty, Chief Executive Officer Collab Group of Colleges
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The Government’s long-awaited response to the Augar review is finally here and includes a consultation on the introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement for all courses Level 4-6. This is particularly relevant to Higher Technical Education (HTE) courses (Many of which are soon to be re-branded under the Government-backed banner of HTQs), as many leaners at this level do not yet benefit from any kind of loan entitlement to ease the financial burden of study. This blog is a follow up to my piece a few weeks ago outlining our research project on Level 4-5 higher technical education, in light of the response to the Augar review.

Those within the sector are likely aware that Higher Technical Education has struggled to maintain relevance with both learners and policymakers amongst a sea of similar qualifications. However, with the first round of digital HTQs set to roll out this September, the capabilities of providers to deliver these qualifications to meet the ambitions laid out in the Government’s rhetoric on skills reform needs to be better understood. FE colleges have always been the market leaders in the supply HTE and so ought to be best placed to lead in the delivery of HTQs. However, Collab Group’s ongoing research into Level 4-5 technical education is revealing that competition with universities is extremely high in the provision of HTE. This is leading to an uneasy feeling that collaboration between the two is now a challenge. Consequently, the FE sector must look to its strengths to demonstrate why colleges should be leading the provision of planned HTQ courses.

For instance, it is not particularly controversial to claim that FE colleges, on the whole, are better at engaging with employers than universities. The key to this is our relationships with our local communities. Whilst the reach of universities is national or even international, colleges focus on recruiting local learners. Collab Group’s research has shown over 80% of college learners live within 20 miles of their campus, compared to only 56% of university learners. The 2019 ICF review on Level 4-5 concludes this is the key reason why local employer priorities are more apparent amongst FE colleges than universities. Moreover, older learners looking to reskill, which make up a significant portion of the HTE market, often do so because they are seeking specific employment or are already employed locally. Close relations with local employers allow FE colleges to produce courses to suit the specific requirements of these learners.

In addition, fairer national distribution of skills-based education is also a key cornerstone of the levelling up agenda. Again, FE colleges are better placed to contribute to this as Collab Group’s research has shown its colleges recruit learners from the most deprived areas of the country more consistently than universities. Therefore, colleges are well-positioned to rectify placed-based inequality both through engaging with employers whilst also improving the skills within education ‘cold spots’.

Most colleges are also willing to deliver Level 4-5 with smaller class sizes than universities; the average class size for HTE courses at Collab Group colleges is around 25 students, compared to 72 for other providers. This facilitates a teaching style that is suited to courses with a wide-ranging age cohort. College teaching also emphasises support through learning to a greater degree than universities, which favour student independence. This makes colleges much more suited to learners who may have spent some time out of education, or perhaps struggled with it in their early years. It is also notable that colleges tend to charge lower fees for these courses than universities. This is relevant as current funding regulations mean learners are forced to either self-fund or rely on their employers to pay for these courses, making price-based accessibility key to improving the takeup of, which has been in decline.

With market-based reforms of the last decade encouraging competition between providers for this type of education, relationships between universities and colleges are worsening which is impacting the quality of education. With few colleges having full awarding powers they instead rely on validation agreements with universities to deliver these courses. However, the quality of these agreements is suffering from this competition and reducing trust between colleges and universities. If this continues, the availability of high-quality technical education risks becoming even more unevenly distributed. Consequently, if the Government still believes in the value of HTE, as its response to Augar reflects, it must reaffirm its commitment to the FE sector as the key provider of these courses if it wants to effectively level up skills across the country.

By Ian Pretty, Chief Executive Officer, Collab Group of Colleges

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