What does the higher technical “kitemark” really mean?

Approval processes for higher technical qualifications are complex, unclear, and risk confusing students, providers, and employers. Brendan Coulson asks what can be done

Brendan Coulson leads on the development of Higher Technical Qualifications at Nottingham Trent University and is a Trustee for the Raleigh Learning Trust.

Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) are new or existing level 4 or 5 qualifications that are approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to demonstrate the qualifications’ alignment to employer-led occupational standards.

They are discussed in the Skills for Jobs white paper, which also states the Government’s intention to make it as easy to get a student finance loan for an approved HTQ as it is for a full-length degree using the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE). There’s a risk the Government might not be joining these two up.

The overlap

The LLE, which will be in place from 2025, forms a significant part of the flexible Lifetime Skills Guarantee. The LLE will provide students with a lifelong learning loan account with the equivalent of four years of post-18 education funding at levels 4 to 6, on modules or full courses, over their lifetime.

The LLE aims to provide students with flexibility in the way that they learn. Students will have the option to participate on shorter modular courses, space out their studies over time, and transfer credits between FE and HE institutions. For the LLE to achieve its aim of shorter modular courses within higher technical education, small modules will need to be fundable, especially considering that some Higher Technical Qualifications, e.g., Higher National Certificates/Diplomas, have modules of 15 credits, and most undergraduate courses typically use 20 credit modules.

However, the LLE’s aim of transferable credits between FE and HE will be more challenging to achieve based on the Institute’s current approval process for awarding the HTQ kitemark. The Skills for Jobs white paper introduced IfATE’s approval process, which aims to give credibility and quality assurance that qualifications with the HTQ kitemark will provide students with the entry-level competence they need to enter their chosen profession, or progress onto Higher Education. The Institute plans several cycles of approval over the next five years.

Cycle clips

The first cycle, which covered the digital route, concluded in June 2021. The approval process required qualifications to meet at least 60% of Knowledge, Skills, and Behaviours (KSB) of an occupational standard. For cycle two, which is currently reviewing applications, this has since been changed by the Institute to “Awarding bodies must demonstrate that a qualification covers as many of the knowledge, skill and behaviour statements from the occupational standard as is possible within a course of education.”

Both approaches entail significant problems for consistency of qualifications and easy transfer of credit between provider institutions, both stated aims of the White Paper. Firstly, they will result in several inconsistencies; for example, two providers can develop the same qualification aligned to the same occupational standard, but where one is aligned to the minimum number of KSBs required and another is substantially aligned to the KSBs of the same standard. This alone will cause uncertainty in terms of the level of occupational competence an individual can gain from an HTQ kitemarked qualification.

But an HTQ qualification can be also aligned to a different set of KSBs than adopted for the same qualification at another HEI. This will build barriers relating to transferability of credits and modules from one HEI to another. Even if a transfer is possible, students who may eventually achieve a full award by building up credits may have missed out on modules that were more heavily aligned to the KSBs of an occupational standard.

On the level

Demonstrating the consequence of a lack of suitable guidance, it is remarkable how many approved HTQs in cycle one are level 5 qualifications that are mapped against level 4 occupational standards. This will require two years of funding from Government and will only provide a recognised occupational competence at level 4; this will undoubtably cause confusion amongst students and employers.

Considering the Government’s agenda on simplifying the system, this approval process risks complicating it, and could hinder the transferability and credibility of HTQs across the education and employer landscape. The Institute may argue that local employers are determining which KSBs should be included within a qualification; however, let us not forget that the occupational standards were already developed by employers and are assessed to meet their sector’s requirements.

A way forward?

A simple solution for the Institute is to put guidance in place that requires a qualification to be aligned to an occupational standard at the same level. In addition, through the existing trailblazer groups, the Institute should define a set of KSBs for each occupational standard that employers would expect to see within an HTQ kitemarked qualification.

This would reduce multiple awarding organisations asking employers for their input on which KSBs should be aligned to an HTQ-based study, would support modularised learning, and facilitate transferability. This solution would provide greater flexibility for students in terms of where and how they choose to study, without compromising on the quality and level of occupational competence that they acquire.

Many students may choose to build up their HTQ over time, and with different providers. The LLE could make this possible and be a game-changer for many students that have previously struggled to access HE courses. Prime Minister Johnson referred to the LLE as the “rocket fuel that we need to level up this country”. Therefore, to make this a reality, further consideration of the diverse range of learning journeys through the education system is required by the Institute. This should result in regulation to ensure that more students can access the breadth of modules available, and to build up credits in the confidence that they provide currency within the labour market and are transferable across the FE and HE sector.

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