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Raising productivity through better technical education

  • 16 July 2015

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in partnership with Pearson is launching a report on improving higher-level skills at an event in Parliament hosted by Shadow Skills Minister, John Woodcock MP.

Raising productivity by improving higher technical education: Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum is written by Dr Scott Kelly, who was an adviser to John Hayes, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning from 2010 to 2012.

Commenting on the report, Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:

‘We are not producing the technical skills employers need and our productivity lags behind. Despite the Treasury’s welcome new announcements on productivity, public spending on vocational training remains under threat. Yet detailed proposals for reform have been somewhat thin on the ground.

‘The challenge is about politics as well as money. In 2014, Vince Cable said his civil servants asked him, “why don’t you just effectively kill off FE? Nobody will really notice.” If learners are to reach their full potential and if employers are to have access to the technical skills they need, politicians must resist such advice.

‘Scott Kelly’s practical proposals improve the vocational sector by embedding employers within it, raising the quality of qualifications and strengthening FE colleges. Such reforms would, in time, make killing off the sector unthinkable. We urge Ministers to consider them in detail in the interests of the whole country.’

Dr Scott Kelly, the author of the new report, said:

‘Technical education matters for the future of our economy and for the future of learners, who want to study qualifications that are valued in the job market. Yet, the complexity of the current system denies access to these crucial skills, which contributes to Britain’s poor productivity.

‘A concerted policy effort is need to provide a clear path to high-levels skills. Funding should prioritise the pressing needs of businesses and learners rather than always being directed at yet more undergraduate places and lower-level apprenticeships.

‘A new funding mechanism, supported by employers, would give technical and professional education a strong voice in the education system – as in other countries – for the first time.’

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson in the UK, said:

‘Tackling the skills gap is one of the biggest economic challenges for the UK. We face a double whammy: we lack the technicians we need for the jobs of tomorrow and many of today’s technicians are close to retirement.

‘This challenge cannot be met by one policy response. We must ensure we encourage vocational study through a range of pathways, including classroom-based provision in colleges and work-based learning through more higher apprenticeships. We need to keep a range of options open in the interests of young people and the economy in which they will work.

‘Scott Kelly’s paper sets out clear thinking on the best remedy – a step-change in employer engagement and leadership, enabling us to match these crucial Level 4 and Level 5 skills with the industries that need them most.’

Key findings

  • A lower proportion of people in England and Wales have technical and professional qualifications than in other advanced economies. This has a detrimental impact on the British economy and is part of the explanation of the country’s relatively low productivity.
  • The 2015 election manifestos displayed a commitment to increase sub-degree provision. But the details were vague and did not address the underlying reasons for the current lack of provision.
  • The necessary features of a better system are:
    • a well-defined set of institutions with a core mission based around technical and professional qualifications;
    • a better system for accrediting and funding technical and professional qualifications, with a clear distinction between work-oriented qualifications linked to specific jobs and qualifications intended as stepping-stones to first degrees; and
    • reduced barriers to employer engagement.
  • Further education colleges are ideally placed to play a larger role in the provision of technical and professional qualifications but expansion must be dependent on links to local employers and on teaching that combines pedagogical expertise with knowledge of current practice in the workplace.
  • People with recent industry experience should be encouraged into teaching by removing some of the qualification barriers to becoming a part-time teacher and by establishing a scheme similar to Teach First that supports qualified and experienced technicians who want to shift to teaching.
  • A new system for accrediting qualifications should embrace existing well-established brands such as Higher Nationals but should also give scope to accredited higher education institutions, FE colleges and private training providers to design and deliver their own qualifications if they can demonstrate sufficient rigour and industry engagement.
  • Employers are alienated by overlapping, ad hoc and piecemeal initiatives to fund and accredit work-related education but they do want a formal role in determining the content of qualifications and a stable policy. So formal industry representation should be intrinsic to a new system for accreditation and funding, leading to the creation of strong and stable institutional anchors for business engagement.

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