The Higher Technical Education Review

For those who have been thrilled at the Post-18 Review, and delighted in the ongoing Post-16 Review, we bring news of a further Department for Education delight – a(nother) consultation, the Higher Technical Education Review.

As well as a consultation document to respond to over the long hot summer, there’s also a “case for change” based on an analysis of the current system, and the usual impact assessment.

Change is a constant in technical post-compulsory education. You’ll recall last year’s work on T levels, and the seemingly endless modifications of plans for apprenticeships at all levels. Like other attempts, this new review aims to clear up a confusing corner of the education system and to promote the virtues of higher technical education.

For clarity we’re looking at the gap between A levels (level three qualifications) and undergraduate degrees (level six qualifications). This includes taking in things like Foundation Degrees, CertHE and DipHE (level four and five qualifications). Depending on the results of the consultation, we’ll know them as Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs).

The first thing to note is that the foreword is signed off by Anne Milton, Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships – not Chris Skidmore, who has the Universities and Science brief. Some might see this is as confusing, and there’s evidence of further work being needed on an “integrated tertiary” agenda throughout the documents – but at least Anne is around this time. She wasn’t even at the Augar launch.

Technical LEO

The headlines revolve around quality – and specifically the links between quality and finance, and quality and attractiveness. This is all couched in the usual rhetoric focused on international comparators and employer needs – though we also get an early look at what may end up being FE LEO.

This latter sees the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) comparing the earnings of the cohort who did level 4 qualifications in 2002/03 based on their decisions to continue their study via technical qualifications, against those who studied at a Russell Group or other HEI. However, digging in to the detailed research suggests that an early earnings differential in favour of higher technical qualifications tends to disappear by age 30 for this cohort (with a financial crash about five years in to their career), though there are exceptions in STEM and construction.

As soon as we saw the press release we wondered about the number of students in each slice – sure enough for this cohort we are comparing around 200,000 holding higher education qualifications (L6 Academic, L7 or above) with something in the region of (charitably) 10,000 holding L4 and L5 vocational qualifications. We note this because the precise “vocational qualifications” in the salary chart are never actually specified. There’s also a diversity of qualification completion ages – as students at vocational level 4 and 5 tend to complete their qualifications later. As usual with LEO based data, we could spend all day going over caveats, but the very fact that this early-stage research is referred to in the consultation publicity is interesting.

Quality matters

It’s the approach to quality assurance (and “kite marking”) that will raise eyebrows in the higher education sector. It’s a bar that has to be passed to get to the proposed Augar review uplift to income and student support at higher education rates – although naturally this consultation points us to the spending review and the full government response in Augar to follow at an unspecified future date (it was supposed to be in the autumn, but a full response now looks unlikely).

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education would retain responsibility for working with employers (via the Route Panels) for compliance with occupational standards, but the technical offer from FE and HE providers would go via a new set of “technical ongoing registration conditions” set by none other than the Office for Students.

The framing of these draft conditions is interesting. We are in Regulatory Framework condition B territory, but with a twist:

Specifically indicate high-quality higher technical provision by expanding on the key elements already assessed by OfS as part of the registration process, such as:

  • Suitably qualified and experienced teachers with current, relevant occupational and industry experience and expertise, as well as high quality pedagogical skills. Leaders have the capacity and ability to ensure provision is sustainable and retains a clear focus on quality
  • Strong links with employer networks, thus ensuring the knowledge, skills and behaviours being delivered are valued by, and relevant to, employers who are engaged and investing in training; and;
  • Learning environments that provide access to facilities and equipment that are reflective of the workplace, including industry-relevant, up-to-date equipment.

Draw from the IoT assessment process, which uses a range of criteria including evidence of support for regional and national economic growth; employer engagement; relevance to occupational skills needs; and quality industry relevant teaching.

For regular higher education registration, the OfS does not look at the qualification and experience of teachers. Neither does it look specifically at links with employers, or the quality of resources. OfS has historically been focused on HE outputs – what the graduates are like, and how they rate their experience during and after the course. Here’s existing condition B to compare:

B1: The provider must deliver well designed courses that provide a high quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed.

B2: The provider must support all students, from admission through to completion, with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education.

B3: The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers, and/or enable further study.

B4: The provider must ensure that qualifications awarded to students hold their value at the point of qualification and over time, in line with sector recognised standards.

B5: The provider must deliver courses that meet the academic standards as they are described in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications at Level 4 or higher.

B6: The provider must participate in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework.

None of these refer to checking what the provider puts in to a course – it is all about what students get out. Higher education providers are free to “deliver successful outcomes” in any way they want – the regulatory check is on the outcomes themselves. But these “technical ongoing registration” conditions start to set out what the provider should do and how they should do it – very much the opposite approach. Are we seeing the limits of Barberology when we put higher level technical into the mix?

A case for change

“There is no single, simple explanation for why uptake of level 4-5 qualifications, and the resulting supply of skills, is consistently low in England,” concludes DfE. Despite what have been identified as personal and societal benefits, technical qualifications at this level are not attractive to learners. Surprisingly, the expected attitudes survey appears not to have been conducted, so for the moment this continues to be a mystery.

A review of the evidence offers no convincing rationale for the L4/5 “gap” – just 4% of the cohort hold these as their highest qualification – this compares to 26% at L3, 27% at L6, and even 6% at L7 and above. It just sits there, with employers demanding that it is filled – and have you ever heard an employer asking for less skills in the workforce?

There’s a generalised perceived lack of information on L4-5 qualifications – among employers and potential learners. It’s not hard to argue that a part of this may be a function of the widespread understanding of Level 2 (GCSE), 3 (A level), and 6 (undergraduate degree) qualification world, and the fast pace of change at the inbetween point. But DfE don’t make this case.

Instead hope is placed in new National Colleges and Institutes of Technology leading on developing “prestige” in this field, with other providers complementing the prominent offer. There’ll be a national campaign based around the idea of higher technical qualifications linked to the quality kitemark, coupled with promotion of the qualifications direct to schools and colleges, for use in the provision of information, advice, and guidance linked to careers. The finance offer, it is reckoned, will help too.

What it doesn’t say

What’s fascinating is a read of the documents released by DfE alongside both Augar and comments from many a minister. In theory, you can grow demand for higher level technical by making provision and qualifications in this space more attractive. But the noises have all been about choking off or restricting supply for “low value” provision (without ever explicitly saying “low value” students), especially if you talk about ending the “snobbishness” of only considering higher technical for “other people’s children”.

Remember that curiously poorly evidenced foundation years proposal in Augar? Here, other types of foundation provision – anything academic at L4 & 5 and the foundation degree itself – is considered out of scope, and at the mercy of the forthcoming spending review. There will doubtless be exceptions, but it might be that we’re edging towards two choices – the traditional bachelor’s degree, and the “up to Level 5 and specially approved” higher level technical – with an extra dose of “parity of esteem” to top it off. Those who argue that foundation provision is good for access may well have to get into the ring with those who argue that those that don’t make first time round with their head, may instead be funnelled into doing things with their hands.

If you fancy it, you can respond to the consultation using NSS’ likert scale until 29 September.

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