The highly anticipated review into post-18 education, and how to pay for it, conducted by Philip Augar, was release at the end of last month (May 2019). The report itself is a massive 216 document and contains substantial analysis alongside more than 60 recommendations for reforms to Apprenticeships, Further/ Higher/ vocational and technical education.

It’s not possible to summarise the findings of the review within this short article, but it’s worth picking up on some of the points it makes specifically related to higher technical education (Level 4/5).

Qualifications at these levels include higher nationals (HNCs/HNDs), Foundation Degrees and Certificates and Diplomas, they can help people gain entry to skilled work or support further study. Individuals studying these types of qualifications are generally older (average age 30) and around half are studying part time.

The report emphasises the dire state of higher technical education (level 4/5) provision in England, which it terms the ‘missing middle’. As Alison Wolf, in response to the review, put it:

"Courses teaching technician and advanced craft skills are vanishing from English education at speed, even though the economy is crying out for these skills. Today’s young people are effectively offered a single choice. A full degree, now – or nothing."

Very few students study higher technical qualifications, which has given rise to persistent skill gaps at technician level, and the number of starts at this level has fallen dramatically. In 2009/10 there were around 510,000 learners enrolled in a higher technical qualifications, by 2016/17 this had fallen to just 190,000. This ‘missing middle’ means that England is an outlier by international standards and we would need to double current figures just to match the OECD average.

The review sets out that this situation results from the current, complex, funding structure, which has incentivised the provision, and take up, of three-year full-time undergraduate degrees and disincentivised provision and take-up of Level 4/5 course - as well as part-time of adult study more generally. To redress this balance and stimulate the supply and demand for learning at sub-degree level, the review calls for an individual “lifelong” entitlement to student finance. This is proposed to be set as a financial amount equivalent to four years’ full-time undergraduate degree funding. The funding could be used for vocational or academic courses from levels 4 to 6 at any stage of an adult’s career for full and part-time students.

Additional recommendations to increase the provision and take up of higher technical education include:

  1. technical provision is available.
  2. To support retraining, flexible and “second chance” learning, it was recommended learners should be able to access student finance for tuition fee and maintenance for modules of credit-based Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications.
  3. The review recommends Level 4/5 qualifications should be streamlined – there are currently over 3,000 separate qualifications; the status and quality of provision should be improved; and that they should be regulated by the Office for Students.

The focus of improving the provision and take-up of higher technical education is welcome. We have previously commented that the rapid expansion of higher education has been at the expense of further and technical education, resulting in many graduates ending up in non-graduate jobs as supply has outstripped demand. Yet, it remains unclear how much, if any, of the review will be implemented, given that when decisions are made the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Education Secretary who commissioned it, will almost certainly no longer be in place. In other words, watch this space.

About the author

Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser - Skills

Lizzie is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Lizzie led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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