On 29 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a Lifetime Skills Guarantee offering free advanced technical courses for adults who do not have an A level or equivalent qualification, and a flexible lifelong loan entitlement to four years of higher education.
This follows close on the heels of a government announcement on 14 July of plans to fill the “missing middle” in the English skills system, through reform of higher technical education (HTE) — technical programmes at level 4 and 5 in the qualifications framework. These proposals represent a welcome attempt to revive a potentially very valuable sector of the education and skills system, linked to a necessary emphasis on the central role of employers in recognising and supporting HTE qualifications.
In a newly published report (Beyond the missing middle – developing higher technical education), supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, I draw on international experience to suggest some key features of quality HTE programmes that might underpin the revival of HTE in England. These features include attention to work placements, effective modularisation, and consolidation in a limited number of qualifications. But one over-arching theme is a focus on adult learners. This group of learners represent both a big challenge and a huge opportunity.
Why the challenge? Compared to young school-leavers, adult learners have complicated and diverse learning needs. Some will have extensive work experience in relevant fields. Many will want to study flexibly and part-time to fit around work and home responsibilities. Others still may want to reskill for a completely new profession. So a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.
Flexible by nature
So how can HTE grasp this opportunity? Some of the answer lies in modularisation and flexible delivery, fitted around the busy and sometimes uncertain schedules of adults – Boris Johnson’s September speech referred to flexible loans to allow study to be spaced out across a lifetime, but there are other innovations that could be designed to make higher technical education adult-friendly.
For adults, recognition of prior learning is important, allowing experienced workers to obtain course exemptions, and access their target qualification quicker and at a lower cost in time and money. While these arrangements exist in England, and in other countries, they are often cumbersome in practice, with limited take-up, as for any individual to prove their prior learning can be complicated and resource-intensive for individual and provider alike.
Two European models
One alternative model for recognition of prior learning is the professional examination systems found in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries. The principle is that experienced practitioners may upskill through a professional examination without any fixed programme of study. Preparation for the examination is tailored to individual needs through short courses, often delivered at weekends or in the evenings. This means that the cost and complexity, both for HTE provider and individual, of special procedures for recognising prior learning are side-stepped. They are best adapted for adults already working in the relevant field, where professional knowledge allows informed choices about the preparatory courses needed to fill in the gaps in knowledge and skills.
Quite separately, many continental European countries allow experienced adult workers the option of direct access to the end point assessment of apprenticeship programmes, gaining a qualification identical to that obtained by a graduating apprentice without going through an apprenticeship programme. Again, the same principle is at work of allowing experienced adult workers to bypass fixed programmes of study, while subjecting them to a rigorous assessment procedure to ensure occupational competence. If this arrangement were adopted for higher technical apprenticeships (at level 4 and 5), it would establish a pathway to the recognition of higher technical competence, closely articulated with the equivalent apprenticeship, Higher Technical Qualification and occupational standards, suitable for experienced adult practitioners who would not want, or need, a more conventional fixed programme of study.
These options would need to be thought through in terms of funding and regulation, but they are tried, tested and successful in other countries. They could help adult workers who have lost their jobs, or had their learning programmes disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. They are quite different to the offer from bachelor’s degree programmes, and would therefore have the capacity to carve out a distinct place for higher technical programmes in the English skills landscape. Finally, their adoption would add great impetus to the increasingly important enterprise of developing higher technical education.