This guest blog has been written by Paul Hazell, Evaluation and Analytics Manager at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). It outlines findings from a report released today into sub-bachelor higher education qualifications.


In just over 50 years the proportion of students studying for sub-bachelor qualifications – such as Higher National Diplomas and Certificates – has declined from around half at the time of the Robbins inquiry to some 15 per cent now.

This statistic masks considerable variation between the UK nations: England has the lowest proportion of sub-bachelor students, at 13 per cent of its higher education population compared with a quarter in Scotland.

These are among the findings from research commissioned by QAA that investigates higher education below the level of the bachelor degree in the four countries. The research team at the University of Sheffield (Gareth Parry, Arti Saraswat and Anne Thompson) not only assemble invaluable data. Their study is the definitive resource for policymakers looking to understand ‘why’, and not just what has happened to these qualifications.

Sub-bachelor higher education is a collection of diverse and disparate qualifications and many are studied on a part-time basis. Some of the oldest, such as the HND and HNC, date from the 1920s. The youngest is the Foundation Degree in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the only sub-bachelor qualification to be styled a degree.

Before that, the Diploma of Higher Education was launched in the 1970s as a general undergraduate qualification but later, along with the Certificate of Higher Education, evolved into a qualification serving (mainly) the health professions. Then there are assorted higher-level technical and professional qualifications (‘non-prescribed higher education’).

Sub-bachelor higher education is then a story of long-standing and newly created qualifications accompanied by reform (in England at least). Impressed by the contribution of HNDs and HNDs to expanding participation in Scotland, the Dearing inquiry accorded further education colleges a special mission at these levels. Sub-bachelor provision spans the separate administrative and funding infrastructures of further and higher education.

Sub-bachelor higher education has benefited from QAA’s qualifications frameworks – the FHEQ and the FHEQIS in Scotland. These build on the work of one of its predecessors, the Higher Education Quality Council. Under QAA, they have brought clarity and visibility to qualifications below the bachelor degree. Nationally agreed standards are ‘a powerful illustration of the role of a qualifications framework not just in positioning a long-standing sub-bachelor qualification but in changing and standardising its description’.

The research prompted a further question for Gareth and his team: are there any countries with similar experience to the UK? For example, continual reform of sub-bachelor qualifications, relatively loose labour markets, major structural changes in the economy going hand in hand with mass participation in higher education, and high levels student retention with a world leading research base. In addition, there is class and culture – Howard Newby’s English genius for turning diversity into hierarchy.

Gareth’s reply is as follows:

There are really only two scholars internationally who have tried to compare the character and pattern of sub-bachelor higher education: the late Norton Grubb at the University of California, Berkeley and Gavin Moodie, now at the University of Toronto. Moodie wrote a good book (From Vocational to Higher Education, 2008) which was pretty much ignored by researchers on higher education. I am not aware of more recent comparative work of this order.

I think that England has probably been on its own in the number of policy efforts made to change the pattern of supply and demand for sub-bachelor higher education, in each case without much success.

Alison Wolf and others have contrasted the high-performing technical education systems in many countries with the small size of this sector in England and its low-value vocational qualifications, including at the higher levels. Simon Marginson has argued that social demand for the bachelor degree rather than economic demand from the labour market has driven the worldwide expansion of higher education.

At the same time, there is the view from the OECD that there is an under-supply of work-related intermediate qualifications relative to potential employer demand, especially in England. The general argument is made in the OECD (2014) Synthesis Report Skills beyond School and specifically in the country report on England: Musset and Field (2013) A Skills beyond School Review of England. The picture presented is often wide of the mark, not surprising given that so few studies in England examine tertiary education as a whole.

I think your surmise on the ‘success’ of bachelor-led undergraduate education is broadly correct. As Martin Trow regularly observed about English arrangements, further and higher education are simply not part of a common system, with neither seeing themselves as engaged in a common enterprise.

All food for thought, and further research. In the meantime, we await the planned expansion of higher and degree apprenticeships, the Office for Students (OfS) and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. We also have this report: it deserves a place, among the blue and yellow HEPI reports, on the desks of policymakers.


The report – Sub-Bachelor Higher Education in the United Kingdom – can be downloaded in full here.