Higher technical education belongs in colleges – let’s prove why

3 Dec 2021, 10:22

A research project will build the case for colleges delivering higher technical education, writes Ian Pretty

Early this year, the government set out its intention to improve the level of technical education across the UK by publishing the Skills for Jobs white paper (often dubbed theFE white paper).

Within this paper, the government specifically points to improving the relationship between FE providers and employers.

This is so that skills delivered by these courses more closely match the deficiencies currently affecting the UK’s labour force and contribute to government ambitions of a high-skilled, high-wage economy.

‘White paper fails to pinpoint providers’

The UK severely lags behind comparable economies in the availability of vocational and technical skills. 

As a result there are fears that England’s place within the OECD’s rankings could suffer, if current trends continue as projected. 

Nevertheless, this white paper did little to address which providers are best placed to deliver the education necessary to bridge this gap. 

Increasing the provision of higher technical education at levels 4 to 5 is seen as a key means to address it. 

‘Graduates going back to study level 4’

Generally, courses at this level are more vocational in nature than those offered at level 6 (degree level) and often work in conjunction with employers to provide students with experience suited to specific industries. 

For example, while an engineering degree involves copious academic study, a level 4 course marketed at someone wanting to be an engineer may be specialised in a specific kind of engineering, such as robotics or electrical.

However, it would also teach the skills necessary for them to begin work in this area right away. 

There are increasingly reported instances whereby graduates of technical subjects go back to study at level 4 or 5 after finishing their degrees so that they can begin working. 

If students are forced to take up lower levels of education in order to become employed in these industries, it really does bring into question how necessary it is for them to complete a degree in the first place. 

There is also evidence that students who undertake these courses often command higher salaries than those who have completed undergraduate degrees. 

But systemic biases across our education and employment systems still make degrees the go-to path for those wishing to continue education past level 3 (A/T levels). 

Systemic biases still make degrees the go-to path

Consequently, most uptake of level 4 or 5 courses is among older learners, with 30 being the average age of students currently on these courses. 

‘We need an evidence base’

We agree with government that there needs to be a greater focus on higher technical education to support the needs of key parts of the UK economy. 

In our view, achieving this ambition is only possible if the college sector, particularly the larger college groups, play a core role in the development and delivery of higher technical education.

As a result, Collab Group has embarked on a substantial research project to build an evidence base to support this claim. 

This research will focus on pedagogical excellence, value for money, and how we can ensure effective destinations for those who complete these courses.

To build this evidence, we will be undertaking a substantial level of fieldwork within our colleges over the coming months. 

We are confident that the findings of this project will demonstrate  the capabilities of the college sector. 

The specialisms of larger colleges will be at the forefront of the elevation of higher technical education in the coming years. 

Furthermore, we believe these results will provide useful insight to policy-makers, employers and others as to where their focus should lie.

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