A vocational view on access and participation is needed from the regulator

Mandy Crawford-Lee argues that Office for Students needs to actively include degree apprenticeships and technical education in its access and participation plans

Mandy Crawford-Lee is the Chief Executive of the University Vocational Awards Council

Having read Ali Orr’s piece published by Wonkhe, I am delighted that the focus on widening participation activity is now increasingly linked to a discussion and critical reflection around the purpose and role of an institution’s mandated Access and Participation Plans.

I have also been reflecting on John Blake’s recent article, about his aspiration for the Office for Students’ access and participation work. As with the OfS’ proposed strategy for 2022-25, UVAC is not concerned with John’s planned coverage, but rather with what it does not cover.

The qualification and skills landscape has changed irreversibly. Degree apprenticeships have grown rapidly, there is a push to introduce T Levels at level three, and the potential withdrawal of funding for Applied Generals. The Skills for Jobs white paper has put a huge emphasis on technical education at levels four and five and the government is also pushing for higher education providers to offer more ‘bite-sized’ provision, make greater use of credit, and focus on adult skills. HM Treasury is focused on the role of skills in raising productivity and the return on public investment through education and skills provision. The skills agenda, and in particular the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, was central to the Queen’s Speech last year and continues to be central to the current policy discourse.

If access and participation is seen as a crucial part of OfS’ quality and standards work, then language matters and their statements must reflect the diversity of students and the provision provided. By underplaying the importance of the skills agenda, OfS will not be able to deliver its regulatory role.

In the past, the lack of focus in APPs on students studying level 3 technical and vocational programmes may have had a detrimental impact on students following such courses in terms of progression to higher education. Underrepresented cohorts in higher education are typically overrepresented on level 3 applied, technical, and vocational programmes. Regrettably, in its approach to APPs, OfS has paid too little attention to these programmes in its guidance to higher education providers. We hope that under John’s leadership this will change.

It is our view that much of the outreach work described in APPs is still focused on a model of raising aspirations and awareness regarding higher education opportunities. We believe outcomes are more likely to be delivered if clear progression pathways to professional status are promoted and provided. It is now time that the sector reflects on what should be considered for inclusion in APPs in respect of skills, technical education, apprenticeships and adult learning provision.

A key question for every provider is how their APPs should be developed and delivered in a post-Covid-19 economy, and how they should maximise opportunities for underrepresented groups to access and benefit from HE through technical education including degree apprenticeships.

The pandemic has had a harsher impact on some groups. While it may be too early to draw definitive conclusions, certain occupations and sectors are more adversely affected than others as are some localities. Individuals in occupations with lower-level skills and those under 30 are particularly adversely affected. Employers and the Westminster government will expect higher education providers to have a fundamental role, often in partnership with further education providers, in delivering the skills those newly entering and those already in the workforce need in a post-pandemic recovery.

HEPs need to ensure approaches to skills provision focus on the needs of the national and local economies, engage learners from all backgrounds and all ages. The key approach here is flexibility. This does not just mean bite-sized provision, but also more transparent opportunities for learners to access higher education with recognition of their prior learning, building on the required practice of Recognition of Prior Learning and more effective use of Cert HE and Dip HE exit qualifications.

The Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth white paper published last year outlines such a direction of travel along with plans to develop a world-class technical education system in which higher education will have a key role to play in the development, delivery and accreditation of technical, associate professional and professional education. This calls for a more enhanced form of partnership between further and higher education. An employer seeking to train and develop new and/or existing employees wants a skills solution, rather than just a further education or a higher education programme. Individuals want the skills needed in the jobs market whether it is provided by an FE or HE provider.

Crucially, however, individuals following a skills programme in FE need to have the right opportunities to progress to HE. Approaches to skills, workforce development and continuing professional development need to be combined with approaches to access, widening participation, and employability.

The University Vocational Awards Council was founded in 1999 as a not-for-profit higher education organisation to champion higher level vocational learning. Our remit is to support HE providers, working with employers and partners, to successfully engage in and deliver this agenda and we have around 80 universities drawn from across the UK and from across all mission groups. We observe and advise that APPs should do more to define how adult skills provision could be developed and delivered to maximise the recruitment and retention of underrepresented cohorts to and through higher education and into graduate jobs and the professions. HE providers already deliver technical education including apprenticeships that are key to realising the government’s skills agenda, for example, through nursing, policing, social work, digital and engineering programmes. Such provision can also be designed to enable people from underrepresented backgrounds to access higher education and technical and professional-level jobs.

This key HE provider role in skills delivery, particularly in terms of measurable outcomes, is simply lacking in APPs. Indeed, more generally, the HE provider role in skills is also often underplayed and insufficiently recognised. If work is undertaken to steer and align plans for developing and delivering skills provision through HE providers, with priority groups and access and participation at its core, this will result in a productive alignment between two key government policy areas; firstly, widening participation and secondly, developing the higher-level skills the economy and society needs.

2 responses to “A vocational view on access and participation is needed from the regulator

  1. I agree totally with the article above. It is vital that those with a degree background, particularly those from an arts and humanities background, take on board and include in the HE family those institutions and students who study more technical programmes were high level skills are the main focus.

    Increasingly, degrees involving vocational skills training are responsible for a majority of students in more and more Universities.

    In addition to those mentioned above “nursing, policing, social work, digital and engineering programmes” there are the older skills based degrees such as medicine, law and architecture, plus the apprenticeship degrees and some marketing, digital and AI degrees.

    APPs should have these subject areas at the forefront of their proposals.

Leave a Reply