The idea of “German-style” higher technical qualifications is one that has been launched with great fanfare more than once in the UK.

But each time moves had been stymied by the same linked problems – a lack of understanding of the qualifications from young people and those advising them, leading to a lack of demand, a consequent lack of update, and this rarity leading to a lack of understanding.

The latest attempt comes with the heavily-trailed launch of a “major overhaul” of higher technical education. Those who took the recent university-bashing from ministers at face value will note that the proposed new qualifications, to be managed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IoATE), can be delivered by providers registered by Ofqual and the Office for Students. So, once again, universities are here to rescue us from (checks notes) universities.

Broadly equivalent in weight to the existing Certificates and Diplomas of Higher Education, these new entities will be developed by providers and awarding bodies against specifications developed by IoATE in close consultation with employers. There are also opportunities for providers to pitch in and identify gaps, but the first wave of qualifications (in 2022) will cover “digital” (which we assume means what we used to call information technology rather than using one’s fingers), followed by “health”, “science”, and “construction” in 2023.

Sell the sizzle

More than any other area of education policy, higher technical education space where the government tends to spend heavily on marketing and PR. We still shudder at the memory of Foundation Degree adverts on local radio. And take a look at the glitzy, student and employer facing T level website.

The “brand” is expected to do a lot of work – signify quality, drive awareness, and collect together numerous disparate offers into one cohesive whole. Ironically, the longest-lived “brand” in this space is a set of qualifications that exist almost by default, initially famed as “exit” awards after one or two years of undergraduate study. Certificates and Diplomas of HE are not widely understood as destinations in their own right, even the Edexcel-branded HNC and HND variants didn’t take off. A glance at Discover Uni data shows you the current lay of the land:

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A big part of the problem the government faces is that there are so few level 4 qualifications. The professions usually look for degrees, which have the secondary advantage of being more obviously transferable – there is a “graduate job market”, but interventions in this space tend to be linked to specific roles where local and national needs are perceived. Digital, health, science, and construction courses will – almost like higher-level apprenticeships – be linked to identified employer needs, and although the option of wider study within courses will be available, this all needs to be “occupationally relevant”. As a generation of trained forensic scientists will tell you, you sometimes need there to be more to a course than direct occupational relevance.

So a number of components will have to wait for the response to the Augar review, now likely due alongside the spending review in the autumn. For example – there’s a small number of level 4 and 5 qualifications (and students taking them) that don’t fall into the higher technical subject areas (social studies is a good example) but we’re not clear whether these will still be eligible for student loans at current levels.

Oil and water

You might recall a level of controversy in the consultation’s approach to quality assurance (and “kite marking”). The idea was that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IAfTE) would have been responsible for working with employers (via “Route Panels”) for compliance with occupational standards, but the actual offer from FE and HE providers would have been approved via a new set of “technical ongoing registration conditions” set by none other than the Office for Students.

These were going to look at things like the qualifications of and experience of teachers, links with employer networks, facilities and equipment that are “reflective of the workplace”, and “industry-relevant, up-to-date” equipment. All sensible, but a snag – for all the rest of its work, OfS focuses on HE outputs – what the graduates are like, and how they rate their experience during and after the course – not the inputs.

These proposals are dropped here, which will be a regulatory relief for HE providers – but continues to highlight a fundamental difference in approach (and level of trust) in quality assurance and regulation between FE/skills and higher education that will need to be reconciled at some stage. The text of the consultation responses suggests that this enhanced scrutiny from OfS would have been too bureaucratic – so to deliver an accredited course you simply need to be registered with either OfS or Ofsted.

This highlights another issue – are generalist settings (universities, colleges) that teach everything from art to genetics to ancient history really the right place to situate a higher technical skills offer? Germany famously uses routes including Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences), Technische Hochschulen (Technical Universities) and the Lehrling system alongside a more clearly demarcated technical route at compulsory level and a much more established system of apprenticeships. Rather than setting up a slew of new providers, DfE focuses on those that already exist – which also include newer innovations like the national technical colleges and institutes of technology.

Course approved

There’s a related cultural contrast that is left hanging in the document. That IAfTE approval process for curriculum and assessment setting in level 4 and 5 qualifications could present a challenge to traditions of university autonomy – and so could end up more or less burdensome than, for example, the process providers have been wrestling with for degree apprenticeships. The consultation response calls for a “well-defined, manageable, transparent” process for approvals.

You might be thinking about the curricular stipulations placed on courses validated by a professional, statutory, or regulatory body (PSRB). Famously variable across subjects, this can mean anything from a quinquennial visit to precise learning outcomes and constraints over methods. From the published documentation – it looks like the approach led by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will be somewhere in the middle of this, with more than a glancing similarity to the T level approach.

For T levels, the process for developing courses feels a lot more like procurement. Awarding bodies bid against a call for proposals which includes “outline content” (here’s the one for construction, design, and surveying) that reads a lot like the QAA Subject Benchmarks. It should come as no great shock to a potential provider that construction courses need to cover building regulations – stipulations are at that, very general, level.

There are hints of targeted funding, and longer-term warnings of differentiation in public funding for qualifications not approved by the institute, to convince wavering providers.

Student life

Qualifications are aimed at both school leavers (including those who may have just taken a T level, which would provide for an articulated 16-20 technical route) and adult learners looking to upskill or retrain. It is also hoped that employers will also see these new qualifications as a possible route to workforce development – a commitment to offering flexible learning routes may help here. Learners will have access to either Advanced Learner Loans or the existing higher education student finance package, and there is a hint that further specific support may also be made available in the spending review.

But we don’t know much about what student life would be like. How much time would learners spend in the classroom? The lab? The shop floor? Would they move away from home to study, or stay in their childhood bedroom? Would they be taught by research-active academics or experienced industry professionals? The question of fee levels is also left dangling.

There’s also a section labelled “empowering learners” that argues that it is “vital” that learners are empowered to complain to an independent body when they are not satisfied with their experience – and so the expectation is that all awarding bodies and providers which own an approved HTQ will join the scheme. Again, this seems sensible – but what about the FE and skills sector learners stuck with a different, and much less transparent system? Quite why DfE can’t just require all tertiary providers to join the scheme (as is the case now in Wales) remains unclear.

Waiting for Augar

Though a lot of this reads like some of the ideas put forward in the Augar report, we are assured that this doesn’t constitute the entire response from the government. And there remain lots we don’t know about how these qualifications will be used. How will the idea of lifelong learning play into short, targeted courses and what would be the value of a one-year employer-designed course on, say, blockchain? Learners would be wise to ask questions about longer-term relevance. After all, a degree would offer an earnings and employment premium throughout your working life, far beyond the lifespan of a technological fashion.

It’s all part of a general national conversation that we need to have about the value of short-term, job-linked training, and longer-term personal growth in a wider set of skills for young people. In living memory, one would assume the former would be offered by an employer (an apprenticeship or trainee role) and the latter by the state to suitably qualified learners. At this point, learners are expected to pay – sooner or later – whichever route they take, much like their adult learner colleagues.

One response to “The return of higher technical education?

  1. Good article. On a point of detail, there are 173 colleges on the OFS register and they’re all required to register with OIA. That leaves less than 20 non-OIA registered FE colleges

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