Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations, University Vocational Awards Council

There’s no denying the economic need for level 4 and 5 technical skills. The Government’s analysis on not just the need for level 4 and 5 qualifications, but also initial proposals on how to increase the number of individuals taking and gaining technical level qualifications should, with caveats, be welcome.

It’s particularly encouraging that Government is considering all ages and up-skilling and not just focusing on new entrants. UVAC will certainly be doing our best to support our HEI members, working with further education colleagues to engage in the Higher Technical Qualifications’ agenda.

Caveats are, however, important, which we’ve emphasised in our response to the Government’s proposals. My first point is that the idea of an academic pathway - A levels to ‘academic’ degrees and a separate technical pathway - T levels to higher technical qualifications is flawed. I hope individuals who complete A levels, T levels and not to forget, as is often the case, Applied Generals, have the choice of pursuing a degree or higher technical qualification. What’s also critical is to ensure those completing a higher technical qualification can apply to study a degree in a relevant occupational discipline and gain appropriate credit. Individuals shouldn’t be forced to follow rigid pathways – life and the economy is more complicated.

It’s also important not to dismiss what exists already

In some sectors HNDs are used extensively for one reason – they deliver what employers want. The same can be said for Foundation degrees. Government proposals were positive on this front, but I do worry about how a kite mark will be explained and its added value demonstrated. There’s also a danger that too much emphasis is placed on Higher Technical Qualifications to tackle UK skills gaps and shortages. Sure level 4 and 5 is important, but skills gaps and shortages also exist at levels 3 and 6 and 7. The Government’s own Industrial Strategy identified a deficit in management skills as a key factor explaining the UK’s productivity gap. The crisis in nurse recruitment, a level 6 role, is arguably the biggest occupationally specific skills issue facing the UK.

Crucial to the success, or otherwise, of higher technical qualifications will be employer and professional and statutory regulatory body (PSRB) support. As the proposed kite marking body for Higher Technical Qualifications, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), will need to adopt a position as a facilitator and recognise that employers and PSRBs must be in the driving seat. IfATE route panels must not second-guess employers and PSBRs, but instead should focus on ensuring process is followed. It will be crucial that IfATE develops a kite marking system that minimises bureaucracy, is fast, efficient and the cost of seeking approval is appropriate. While there have been recent improvements, the IfATE’s track record in managing the development and approval process for Apprenticeship standards has certainly not minimised bureaucracy or been fast or efficient.

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The Four Elephants in the Higher Technical Qualifications Room

We’ve then got at least four elephants in the room:

  1. Consistency
  2. Capacity
  3. Awareness, and as ever
  4. Funding.

Consistency

Rightly, the DfE wants to use the expertise of universities, colleges, independent training providers and awarding organisations. But I’m not quite sure how qualifications of different sizes will be kite marked and how this will be explained to employers and learners. Short courses are of value – but how will they be differentiated through a kite mark from larger programmes such as Foundation degrees?

I also really struggle with how qualifications will be kite marked against an occupational standard developed for a work-based programme, an Apprenticeship, and which specifies the knowledge, skills and behaviours required to be occupationally competent.

A predominately classroom based programme may be of considerable value, but may not support the acquisition of some skills and behaviours specified in an occupational standard. Will such a qualification be kite marked? And if so how will such qualifications be distinguished from other qualifications that deliver more or less of the knowledge, skills and behaviours specified in the occupational standard?

Capacity

Ensuring capacity to deliver, will, as with T levels be a challenge. If we’re pushing for a big increase in level 4 and 5 delivery where will new teaching and assessment staff with the right sector expertise and experience come from?

Awareness

 

A fair bit is said about raising awareness of Higher Technical Qualifications in England, a task that shouldn’t be under-estimated, but we also need to know now they will gain international currency in the same way as a bachelor’s degree?

Funding

In terms of funding – what fee levels will be set and what additional capital funding will be available? What will be the difference in fee levels for programmes/qualifications kite marked as higher technical qualifications and those that are not?

So a range of issues, but let me end on a positive. There’s a real need to increase the availability of higher technical education and from this perspective the Government’s initial proposals represent a big step forward. But let’s not under-estimate the challenges we face if the development of Higher Technical Qualifications are to be a success.

Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations, University Vocational Awards Council

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