There’s more to the future of skills than Higher Technical Qualifications

IHE's Joy Elliott-Bowman welcomes a belated government acceptance that there is more to skills than a small number of employer-approved higher technical qualifications

Joy Elliott-Bowman is Director of Policy and Development for Independent Higher Education UK.

Whichever party wins power in the General Election, there appears to be universal acceptance of the value of higher technical education and the huge part it could play in promoting economic growth.

Higher technical education, it is claimed, is essential in ensuring that the UK’s most successful and promising industries have ready access to a pipeline of highly educated workers with the up-to-date skills and knowledge that employers need.

And if this helps to break the stranglehold that three-year degrees have over the market for higher education, and helps to reduce the overall cost of post-18 education, so much the better.

Independent higher education providers understand this instinctively, because they already work so closely with precisely these employers and industry partners. This is why Independent HE (IHE) strongly supported the initial concept of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs).

But in the top-down implementation which eventually emerged, something got lost.

Out with the old?

As is the standard with many government initiatives, when they have committed to something new and shiny anything remotely similar must be shoe-horned in or tossed aside. The value, quality or reputation of the old will not be considered, only that it must not be allowed to compete with the new.

And so it was with the government’s development of the Higher Technical Qualification (HTQ) that anything similar quickly found itself pushed to the side, and rumours of de-funding turned into declarations that the focus of the new Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) would be on HTQs until 2027.

This was why we at IHE were so surprised (and delighted!) when the body responsible (the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, usually abbreviated as IfATE) rather quietly published their proposals for what else could be funded under LLE – something that we at IHE quickly nicknamed the “anything but an HTQ” model. These proposals show considerable promise, and could form a framework for Labour’s expected promises to deliver better skills education.

But the proof will be in the delivery. As anyone who has attempted the HTQ process can tell you, it remains far too complex, unclear and confusing.

In the proposals recently consulted on, IfATE acknowledged that there were at least four other categories of qualifications between Levels 4-6 that could and should be considered for funding under LLE. The proposals made the case that professional training, short courses, interdisciplinary and future-thinking courses all had a place in higher technical education – each of these being found in the four categories awarding bodies could submit qualifications to under the new system.

In with the… old?

What was most astounding (read exciting) in these suggestions was the tacit implication that IfATE recognised that a model based on occupational maps alone would not be effective in driving forward industry or supporting students for the careers of the future. Indeed, these new suggestions were all proposals under the first consultation on HTQs, and were all summarily rejected in the final consultation response.

They are also all examples of the types of courses developed by industry, local skills boards, professional training bodies and independent higher education providers to address specific skills needs within an industry or locality. We said exactly this in our response to that consultation.

The repeated circling around industry supported qualifications, driven through learning-by-doing, is what has led to IHE’s calls for Technical Education Awarding Powers, regional and localised skills funding, and a more joined up approach to employer engagement in our new manifesto. The solution is not a centralised approach – there are too many hats for our HTQ-sized rack. Diversity is key.

Defining the future for skills

Part of the challenge in any top-down approach to qualifications, especially one driven by “employers”, is that they are not a homogenous group. One has only to look at recent analysis by the Unit for Future Skills and Movement to Work or Lightcast to see that skills and competencies differ even within defined occupations, and the impact of changes in technology, behaviours and the climate mean that some employers and subsections of industries change more quickly than others. IHE members know this well, as many have emerged out of industry or employers to address this very problem – that training must keep pace to drive innovation and growth.

HTQs may be a solution for some, but it cannot be the only model for higher technical education. Providers need the flexibility to respond to industry more quickly, and to do so with confidence. To respond quickly we need awarding powers that bring employers, students, providers and regulators together to focus on what is really needed. In the current model, these groups are segmented with awarding bodies regulated by one body, providers another, and employers housed in a regulator in between. This adds complexity, time and most importantly separates out the student experience from two of three regulators, arguably the most important factor in the equation.

Technical Education Awarding Powers would provide the base for innovative delivery that could meet IfATE’s proposed categories of higher technical qualifications. Short top-up qualifications could turn laboratory technicians into materials testers, architectural design technicians into experts in retro-fit, and chefs into experts in sustainable food production management.

Together with our proposals for employer incentives for LLE, professional training and local collaborations, this would bring together industry and education to focus on new, perhaps more sustainable, models of growth. But this will not work if the only thing we fund is HTQs.

IfATE has acknowledged that we need diversity over standardisation. We urge the next government to create the building blocks for growth that the UK’s technical education sector desperately needs.

Read IHE’s Manifesto for Higher Education

Leave a Reply