How to shift attitudes and market higher technical qualifications effectively

The umbrella term of higher technical qualifications is a useful conceit to appeal to the right learners in what is a considerable potential market

The umbrella term of higher technical qualifications is a useful conceit to appeal to the right learners in what is a considerable potential market

11 Jun 2024, 5:00

Fifteen years ago, at a meeting about recruiting students to higher technical courses, I heard one college director bemoan, to sympathetic nods, that her biggest problem was ‘the attitude of our own level 3 tutors’.  

Those tutors were encouraging students who might progress on to higher education at the college to enrol elsewhere, she explained, because ‘they think their teaching deserves a better result than college HE’.

Last month, at events organised by the Association of Colleges and the Gatsby Foundation, I spoke about the work of my company in researching higher technical education markets.

Judging by comments from attendees, the problem persists.

Recruitment to non-degree higher education is notoriously difficult. For institutions bridging the gap between A Level, BTEC and level 4, if tutors actively advise their students to avoid progressing, it becomes Sisyphean.

While local higher technical provision might not be right for the majority of level 3 students in a college, sixth form or independent provider (who typically are looking for a residential experience away from home), the minority for whom it might be right make up a considerable potential market.

This phenomenon of dissuasion is a cultural and leadership failure. If the problem is one of poor quality among higher-level courses, that needs be addressed. Likewise, if it is one of prejudice or ignorance.

So it is good news that the Department for Education intends to update its toolkits for providers of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) to include materials targeting tutors.

Our own research into HTQs highlights various other challenges facing these kinds of programmes, while uncovering some solutions.

According to critics, HTQs are ‘just another acronym’ in a crowded qualifications market. They suffer from low awareness among potential students and their influencers. 

Dissuasion is a cultural and leadership failure

I think this misses the point. The plethora of (in particular, ‘non-prescribed’) provision at levels 4 and 5 means that some kind of organising conceit is required. HTQs are as good as any other.

This does not mean that this or future governments are likely to pour money into their branding or marketing like they have done with apprenticeships. That’s fantasy.

But it does mean that providers have the opportunity to package their qualifications in a manner that we know from the literature and our own research appeals to the target market: as occupational standards that will help get you a job or improve your career.

Another major challenge that higher technical education recruiters face is the diversity of the target market.

The good news here is that there is an abundance of publicly available evidence to help institutions unpick that complexity.

These include a library of studies and surveys commissioned by DfE. For example, the 2022 Technical Education Leavers Survey features new research on the motivators, influences and barriers of level 4 and 5 students.

Given that the majority of these students are aged over 24, it’s also useful to understand the attitudes and behaviours of adults more generally. For that, the Learning and Work Institute’s ‘Adult Participation in Learning’ study provides very useful insight.

It is clear from its results that convenience is a crucial factor in decision-making for adults thinking about non-leisure learning at higher level, in particular those with childcaring responsibilities.

Which is one reason why higher technical education providers should spotlight timetabling, travel connections and crèche facilities in their marketing.

They also need to understand which types of learners prefer different modes of delivery. In crude summary, the lower the level, the higher the preference for face-to-face learning. Which means that there can be a vibrant market for blended delivery at levels 4 and 5.

Our research, alongside the literature, is also very clear that search engine optimisation is important for all types of provision because of the primacy of online search among target markets.

Recent developments in artificial intelligence allow providers to become much more proficient at labelling courses and using key words that match the search terms used by potential students.

There is much more to consider, including the appeal of modularisation among employers, school liaison using level 4 tutors and adult recruitment through community centre partnerships, but the thoughts I have set out here are a good place to start.

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