Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

There is a lot to welcome in the Secretary of State’s arguments on the role of universities in the delivery of higher technical qualifications and apprenticeships.

Firstly, as UVAC has been arguing for some time, Government recognises the vital contribution universities make in the delivery of skills, technical education and apprenticeship programmes.

Secondly, no one could disagree with more innovation in the delivery of degree programmes, or that more flexible, blended and part-time provision is needed - something UVAC has been supporting for decades.

Partnership between further and higher education is also critical

Degree Apprenticeship represents the pinnacle of innovation in this area. A degree, an apprenticeship and a job where an individual learns and earns at the same time and develops the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to become occupationally competent. The Government should be proud of the success of Degree Apprenticeship: a development that has attracted the attention of our international competitors.

What we must not do, however, is develop a mantra of expanding provision at levels 4 and 5 at the expense of degree programmes. As UVAC has argued, on numerous occasions, some of the most critical skills shortages in the UK are for level 6 occupations.

To become a registered nurse, an individual needs to complete a nursing degree, social workers need a degree to practice, as do individuals seeking to become police constables. And for the avoidance of doubt the ‘degree status’ of such occupations has not been determined on a whim, but instead by careful review and consideration of professional bodies and regulators.

Few would disagree with the need for universities to offer more engineering, digital and a range of other STEM degree programmes. Yes, we need more flexibility in design and delivery, but we also need more, not less, provision in these areas.

Elsewhere, we need universities to continue to deliver management programmes to tackle the UK’s deficiency in management skills and to tackle the negative impact this deficiency has on UK productivity, as outlined, in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Value in the employment market

Of course, a charge is sometimes made, that the university sector delivers too many humanities degrees and vocational programmes that have limited value in the employment market. As someone who enrolled on an economic history degree nearly forty years ago I should declare an interest. My university experience enabled me to develop analytical, critical thinking and writing skills that provided a base for developing such skills throughout my career.  

As to vocational programmes that have limited value in the employment market, no one should defend programmes that deliver the skills for the jobs of yesterday, or where individuals are miss-sold courses on the basis of employment prospects.

Charges, however, need to be made on the basis of evidence. Vocational degrees also have academic rigour and are delivered to academic standards. Sure, many individuals who pursue a degree in the creative sector may not end-up working in the creative sector. The skills they develop will, however, be of value in a range of occupational roles.

We should also not underestimate the contribution a mass higher education system, with individuals from all backgrounds, following a wide range of programmes makes to society. Learning is a good thing, full stop.

So how should we proceed?

  1. Firstly, lets value both higher and further education.
  2. Secondly, UVAC will continue to do all we can to support our members to engage in the growth of Apprenticeship and technical education. We will also seek to support universities to ensure that they are at the cutting edge of innovation in the delivery of higher-level vocational provision.

We do, however, need support to deliver the Secretary of State’s vision. Funding bands for Degree Apprenticeships and technical education programmes must allow for the delivery of financially viable quality programmes. We also need an Apprenticeship and technical education system that supports university (as well as further education) engagement.

Positively the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education seems to increasingly recognise the value of allowing employers through Apprenticeship Trailblazers to specify a mandatory degree in an Apprenticeship. The Education and Skills Funding Agency is also slowly developing as an agency that embraces skills provision delivered by both further education and higher education. Ofsted, however, remains an issue.

Ofsted should have no role in influencing the composition of Apprenticeship provision

Staggeringly, in contrast to the Secretary of State’s emphasis on the need for universities to deliver more Apprenticeships Ofsted has, in the past, argued for the emphasis instead to be focused on providing apprenticeships for young people leaving school without five good GCSEs.

Rather than a root and branch revision of its inspection process to recognise employers’ focus on higher-level apprenticeships Ofsted has stuck to its existing inspection approach developed on the basis of Apprenticeship provision at level 2 and 3. Government, employers and learners deserve better.

Moving forward, it is critically important that quality assurance for Apprenticeships delivered by universities and their partners is higher education appropriate and led by an organisation fully supportive of the Higher and Degree Apprenticeship agenda.

The answer is straightforward – OfS and QAA with their wealth of expertise of working with professional bodies and regulators and regulating degree programmes that lead to professional registration and recognition of occupational competence should have sole responsibility for all Apprenticeship and technical education provision delivered by universities.

Ofsted should focus on level 2 and 3 Apprenticeship provision and have no role in influencing the composition of Apprenticeship provision.

So with caveats we welcome the Secretary of State’s challenge.

Higher Education must play a pivotal role in ensuring the country has the skills which individuals and the employers need to improve productivity, for a successful advanced economy and to deliver critical public sector services.

Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

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