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Higher technical is how we level up

As the debate over "value" continues, Rama Thirunamachandran argues that higher technical education is key to levelling up
This article is more than 1 year old

Rama Thirunamachandran is Chair of MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor, Canterbury Christ Church University

Politicians from all parties have emphasised the need for the UK to reboot its offer to people looking for vocational or employer-led education, often called higher technical education.

Higher education should be for people of all-ages and stages in life, not just aimed at young school or college leavers.

As our new report, Levelling up: investing in higher technical education at universities in England, makes clear, modern universities – like those who are members of MillionPlus – are a driving force of higher technical education across the UK. By working in partnership with employers, HE students are offered the opportunity to learn using work placements, degree apprenticeships and by studying innovative courses that are simultaneously technical and academic.

Ready for the future

Higher technical education at modern universities equips people with not only hands-on skills but the underpinning academic knowledge that will equip them well to deal with the changes in job roles wrought by artificial intelligence and automation in the decade to come. It is hugely important that this higher education offer is flexible and open to people throughout their working life. Modern universities excel at providing individuals with learning opportunities at whatever age or stage they are at.

The government’s aim to grow study at levels 4 and 5, as part of degrees or standalone qualifications, has the full support of modern universities. Universities will be key players if we want to see this mode of study regain the number of students it had before the 2008 crash and various policy shifts since. Universities boast the expertise and infrastructure essential for this distinctive type of provision, indeed it is they who deliver much of it already. If barriers to access are removed, the quality and variety of much of this provision presents us with an opportunity to expand this space in the 2020s.

If the mantra of the higher education reforms since 2012 has been student choice, then it is logical that students should be supported in whatever informed choice they make. The cost associated with studying some level 4 and 5 qualifications, with little in the way of loan or grant support, is in stark contrast to the situation for students opting to take a full undergraduate degree course. This must change by all providers registering with the Office for Students, thus enabling their students to receive adequate financial support though loans and grants.

Too many people go to university

An argument made by some commentators and politicians, in part driven by media perceptions, is that the UK has failed on technical education, caused by “too many” people going to university. This argument is far more complex than easy headlines or soundbites might suggest.

While there is real opportunity to grow and develop high-quality technical provision above level 3, the rhetoric of a trade-off with degree provision is misguided at best. The debate often falls into the trap of pitting provision at universities in England against provision offered at other institutions, such as FE colleges. This misunderstands the higher education offer at universities. For many thousands of students in the UK, a university education is higher technical education.

There needs to be a broader consideration of what is of value within technical and higher education in order to promote a dynamic and responsive education and training system. Modern universities have played, and will continue to play, a substantial and growing role in providing students and employers with high-quality technical education that will meet the need of the UK’s economy in the 2020s.

They also contribute significantly to the diversity of learning environments for technical education and support the supply of skills and increased productivity in regions around the country. If the strategic objective, as stated by the government, is to bolster and grow overall level 4 and 5 study, then it would seem necessary to promote and energise all areas of provision across all types of provider.

A diverse choice of learning environments available to students supports overall participation. Indeed, students make informed choices when deciding to study technical education at universities, and many choose this path precisely because of the unique learning environment that a university setting offers for higher technical education.


It is important to highlight the role played by universities in delivering technical education because this provision is widely overlooked in reports and discussions on advanced vocational or technical study. Much of the recent debate over technical education in England has at the same time limited itself to a rather narrow concept of value when comparing different educational levels, in relation to public investment or graduate earnings returns in the UK.

It would also be a terrible failure of ambition to see level 4 or 5 as the definitive qualification terminus for a large proportion of the population, disconnecting people from opportunities that accessing educational levels above this can bring.

Whether it is called ‘level 4 and 5’, ‘technical education’, ‘higher technical education’, ‘sub-bachelor’ or ‘sub-degree’ provision, these courses are part of the wider context of UK higher education. There needs to be a broader consideration of what is of value within technical and higher education in order to promote a dynamic and responsive education and training system. Modern universities will continue to play a substantial and growing role in providing students and employers with high-quality technical education.

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