Level 4 and 5 qualifications have historically suffered from a perception problem, writes Ian Pretty
Next September, the first round of higher technical qualifications will kick off. But the overall level of demand for these qualifications needs a closer look.
First off, HTQs are level 4 and 5 qualifications, such as higher national diplomas and foundation degrees, that have been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE).
The approvals cycle for digital qualifications concluded in the summer, with the first digital HTQs to be taught from September 2022. This will be followed in 2023 by construction, health and science. The full rollout of all HTQs – including agriculture, hair and beauty, catering and design – will happen over a four-year period.
Essentially, these already exist as HTE qualifications but are being relaunched with a HTQ “quality mark”.
But we have some worrying findings.
At Collab Group we are embarking on a research project into FE college provision of level 4 and 5 HTE involving 26 of our colleges, beginning with a review of existing reports and data.
We have also sought to determine the number of learners currently undertaking HTE courses, primarily through analysing individual learner record data, or equivalent, from 22 colleges.
Worryingly, this analysis suggests that HTE uptake across England declined by one-third between 2015-16 and 2019-20. This is a surprising and concerning drop-off, especially at a time when the government is advocating the need for a higher skilled, higher wage economy.
It is vital, therefore, that we better understand what barriers are limiting participation across level 4 and 5.
Our research has identified several long-standing factors that complicate the ability to increase provision as a whole.
Level 4 and 5 courses have always competed with degrees for students and are, on the whole, far less popular. This is perhaps unsurprising, given school guidance has always been skewed towards university, with the prestige of degrees as well as the attraction of the “university lifestyle”.
Meanwhile, colleges have claimed a rise in unconditional offers for degrees has also deterred learners from higher technical education, according to a Gatsby Foundation study. FE colleges are now competing with universities at level 4 and 5 as the latter look to occupy more of this space.
This is understood to be hurting qualification validation agreements between universities and colleges. If colleges cannot rely on validation from universities, then future provision remains uncertain.
The introduction of the apprenticeship levy has also been extremely damaging for HTE. Most courses are employer-funded but are excluded from the government funding for apprenticeships.
Meanwhile among self-funding learners, reduced adult education budgets have also limited retraining opportunities.
Finally, a historical lack of clear information on why we have these qualifications and what skills they deliver has caused a perception problem for both learners and businesses.
The Department for Education aims to stimulate demand for these qualifications through the HTQ programme. But is this really enough to turn the tide? These qualifications have historically been under-regarded and are now floundering under the competition from other courses.
The DfE also plans to run an extensive communications campaign to support the rollout of HTQs. But this seems insufficient to address declining participation.
What’s more, there is a real risk that introducing HTQs could split the market even further instead of stimulating demand. This was the case with the introduction of foundation degrees.
The government must make absolutely clear who HTQs are for
So the government must make absolutely clear who HTQs are for. Are there two markets – those continuing in education and these returning to education?
If courses need to suit both groups, then they must be designed in such a way to match these different requirements.
A focus on modularisation in courses would allow for flexibility. But can this be done without sacrificing employer engagement in curriculum design?
Consequently, the government needs to think hard about how HTQs can address the existing challenges faced by HTE. Without targeted action, these issues look set to persist regardless of what the qualifications are named.