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Widening participation and unblocking the skills pipeline

Dave Phoenix launches HEPI’s latest report on skills shortages and widening participation.
This article is more than 5 years old

Professor Dave Phoenix is the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

The UK has a marked skills shortage. We have the highest level of employment since 1975 but also more vacancies on record than ever before. We will never be able to meet these skills gaps unless people have the opportunity to reskill and upskill.

Coupled with this problem, since 2012 there have been growing concerns about the significant decline in part-time and mature students enrolling at higher education institutions. There has however, been little focus on the associated collapse in people undertaking Level 4 and 5 qualifications, which  are the subject of my new paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Forgotten pathways

A lack of awareness is central to the problems facing Levels 4 and 5. The public and the vast majority of our policy makers view education as a simple progression – GCSEs at 16, A-Levels at 18 and then a degree at 21. It can be easy to forget that this pathway works for less than half of our young people, and, that Levels 4 and 5 offer vital pathways for progression.  These qualifications, which are higher than A-Levels but lower than a Bachelor’s degree, include Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs and HNDs) as well as  Foundation Degrees.

According to OECD data, the UK is ranked fifth among member countries for the share of the population (46 per cent) holding a Level 6 (degree) as their highest qualification. But when it comes to Level 4 and 5 qualifications we slip down the table considerably to 13th, with only 10 per cent of our population educated to this level.

In the UK, between 2012/13 and 2016/17:

  • Foundation Degree enrolments declined by 26,155, from 63,130 (41 per cent);
  • HNCs and HNDs declined by 2,305 from 17,455 (13 per cent); and
  • the total number of learners studying other Level 4 and 5 qualifications declined by 75,720, from 190,320 (40 per cent).

A blocked pipeline

Among policy makers and employers, there is a growing consensus that this shortfall needs to be addressed. It is easy to see how one could look at the figures and conclude that restricting access to Level 6 could enhance the volume of Levels 4 and 5 being delivered. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said as much in their recent report: Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post School Education.

However, limiting those with the ability and desire to progress to Level 6 would be d a perverse approach to solving a problem defined as a national shortage of skills.

The most significant issue is the country’s failure to graduate sufficient numbers of people at intermediate levels. The high number of learners failing to reach even Level 2 has shut off the pipeline of potential learners for Levels 4 and 5. If policy makers do want to increase the number of learners at Levels 4 and 5, a first step should be to provide mathematics and English qualifications that do not, as a default position, fail 30 per cent of learners – as is the case with GCSEs.

They also need to address the issue of funding for Level 3 qualifications. Those over the age of 19 who wish to undertake a Level 3 qualification currently need to take out an Advanced Learner Loan to fund their tuition fees. If the loan is used to undertake an Access to HE Diploma and the learner subsequently completes a degree course, then it is written off by the Government. In all other situations however, the applicant is required to begin making repayments once they start earning £25,000 or over.

Declining mature numbers

The decline for higher education is inextricably linked with the reduction of both part-time and mature student numbers. Mature learners over 30 studying at Levels 4 and 5 part-time have declined by 70 per cent between 2009/10 and 2016/17. Older students entering higher education are far more likely to study for awards at Levels 4 and 5 than younger learners. Being both shorter and cheaper than a full Bachelor’s degree, these qualifications provide an important ladder for employees looking to increase their skills but not requiring a full degree. They also offer a crucial pathway for other mature leaners who, due to caring responsibilities or other personal or financial commitments are not interested in or able to undertake a full Bachelor’s degree. However, the funding system no longer supports them to do so.

Studying for a higher education qualification is a significant financial undertaking. Student Loans are generally available for only a single qualification. Although there are ‘end-on’ and ‘top-up’ funding options available for those wishing to raise their skills from a Level 4 to a Level 5 or 6, these are very time limited (available for five months or one year post qualification respectively). They do not, for example, enable a learner to study for an HNC, take a break for more than one year and then subsequently study for an HND or Bachelor’s degree.

A double fix

There would be considerable benefits in moving away from the current ‘one shot’ model of student loans and allowing learners to take advantage of a genuine step-on, step-off system, which allows learners to undertake a Level 4 or 5 qualification in the first instance followed by further study at a time that is best for them.  We might just be able to address the decline in mature students and fix the country’s skills gap all in one go.

Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5 is available on the HEPI website


6 responses to “Widening participation and unblocking the skills pipeline

  1. This is an important report and I’d agree wholeheartedly with the need you set out for more attention to the progression of those with a Level 2 to Level 3. We are proposing a new entitlement, backed by proper funding for everyone for life to a Level 3. We also agree with the need to promote and indeed incentivise Level 4 and 5 provision – incentives for the potential students as well as capacity building for new qualifications which can help meet labour market needs. My only issue with what you say is whether we shoudl limit enrolments onto Bachelor’s degrees for those young people with lower entrance qualifications, because I worry about whether many of them them are ready for and will be able to successfully complete a 3 year degree. For some at 18 it might be better to start a one-year Level 4 and then have the option to progress to 5 and to 6 from there.

  2. Your report also suggests that universities are best placed to deliver Levels 4 and 5. Maybe in some places, but colleges have a vital role – they cover the country in a way that universities don’t, which makes it easier for adults to study locally. They tend to have higher student contact hours, high NSS scores, great employment outcomes. They are close to the local labour market and often design or customise qualifications to meet employer needs. Students who progress from Level 2 and 3 onto 4 and 5 often want to stay in the same institution and are best-served if they can, as now.

    Please don’t write them off – in the same way that AoC is always careful not to write-off universities. Some universities do brilliant level 4 and 5, many do hardly any. It’s not about the institution, more about the context.

  3. David – thanks for the comment – I specifically say in the report that some colleges deliver excellent level 4 and higher – those with the scale to devote resources and capability – my concern is if lots of smaller providers seek entry that are not equipped – simonpky to offset shortfalls in FE income – this I feel would undermine HE and fail to address the need for investment in FE for its own sake

  4. I agree with the points raised in this report but, like David Hughes, I have some concerns in regards to the expectations and pressures placed upon FE Colleges to fill in this gap. Greater focus needs to be placed on the content of the curricula being offered in FE. To be frank it is is antiquated and generally falls well short in preparing learners for most modern day sectors of employment. In turn HNCs and HNDs are generally taken directly off the shelf of the awarding bodies’ who provide slim context for delivery. The equivalent would be having a recipe provided that identifies the intended outcome (let’s call it a cake) and lists the ingredients required but neglects to include quantities, mixing instructions and cooking time so you end up with what looks like a perfectly good looking cake that turns out to be uncooked on the inside. Then there is our definition of success, now referred to as achievement, where success in defined by a tick box exercise in passing the modules which comprise the award. Modules are usually stacked up at the very end of the academic year, deadlines are not adhered to and essential study and life skills have a small part of the process where we hand hold learners across the finishing line and then expect them to perform at much higher levels of learning without really having attained the skills to do so. The end results are grade profiles that are heavily weighted at bare passes with little opportunities towards stretching learners to reach higher goals. The main cause for this is based on the concept of funding where the simple equation: the higher % of learners successfully completing = the higher % of funding the next year. So if 75% of your learners complete, you then receive 75% of your funding the following year. Its a downward slope that gives little hope to Further (and Adult) Education. So my question is if we consider financial compensation to learners should we have similar consideration for the providers themselves?

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