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.
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