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To build a better skills system we need a strong core

  • 15 January 2018
  • By Scott Kelly

This guest blog has been written for us by Scott Kelly, the author of the HEPI report into Raising productivity by improving higher technical education. Scott was an adviser to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning between 2010 and 2012 and lectures at New York University in London.

Many of the people heading to the gym at this time of year will be told that developing a strong core is key to maintaining good physical fitness. It’s the core muscles that stabilise the whole body. I would argue that the same principle applies to technical education. Without a strong core of qualifications at the mid-level – in education terminology, that’s levels 4 and 5 – we will always struggle to develop good technical education at both the top and the bottom of the system. Without a strong core, students enrolling on courses at levels 2 and 3 will find their route of progression blocked. By the same token, government spending may encourage universities to increasingly muscle in on the technical education market. But without a strong core to support it, this expansion will be as superficial as the rapid growth in foundation degrees was a decade ago.

The fact that qualifications at levels 4 and 5 are the vital core of technical provision is confirmed by experience in other counties. It is surely no coincidence that England struggles to develop technical provision at level 3 when it has a lower proportion of people qualified at levels 4 and 5 than most other advanced economies. According to the OECD, fewer than 10 per cent of the adult population aged between 20 and 45 have professional education and training qualifications. This compares to over 15 per cent in the United States and Australia and almost 20 per cent in Germany.

Take-up of sub-degree level technical qualifications remains stubbornly low despite evidence of significant skill shortages and strong labour market returns. The lack of provision reflects the fundamental problem of building employer engagement with education providers. Yet it is at these mid-levels that qualifications, such as Higher Nationals, are most closely tailored to employer’s needs. It is at mid-level that qualifications often taper their focus from general skills to specific job roles and industry standards, before widening again to cover greater theoretical knowledge at degree level. Unlock the potential of employer buy-in at levels 4 and 5 and we might well be able to build better employer engagement at other levels as well.

It therefore seems perverse that the Government has decided to review technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5 long after it unveiled important reforms elsewhere in the system. The success or failure of the apprenticeship levy and the new T levels may well depend on a strong core of higher technical and professional provision. T levels may well fail to take off if potential applicants and, more particularly their parents, perceive them as a second best option leading to a dead-end of low-skilled employment. The danger is that, having already determined the new 15 T level routes, provision at levels 4 and 5 will be forced to fit these pathways, regardless of actual demand. The evidence may be made to fit the policy.

Policy makers have long complained about the low levels of provision at levels 4 and 5. It’s likely than an official review will well blame everyone but the Government for the failings in the system. But, in truth, we should marvel that there is as much take-up at these levels as there is, considering that funding has long languished in a no-mans-land between the further and the higher education sectors.

As I argued in a report published by HEPI in 2015, solving the level 4 and 5 conundrum will require comprehensive reform of the way technical and professional qualifications are accredited and funded. While the apprenticeship levy may result in the rapid expansion in courses delivered by Higher Education (HE), without an institutional structure that facilitates collaboration, this headline figure will be largely at the expense of good work elsewhere in the system, particularly in Further Education (FE).  If the Government is really serious about a step-change in provision, it should consider the possibility of a distinct funding mechanism for work-orientated post-secondary education that would radically simplify funding for institutions that have demonstrated excellence in provision across tertiary education.

Finally, policy makers must at last recognise that it isn’t difficult to engage employers because we have too many qualifications but because recruitment decisions are less risky here than in countries with more tightly regulated labour markets. We can choose to keep employment regulations such as licence to practice at a minimum but if we do so we must recognise that employers will need strong support to engage in more work-based training. The recent dramatic fall in apprenticeship numbers is now exposing the folly of the government’s laissez-faire approach.

Building a strong core of technically proficient and productive workers may well be vital to our future prosperity, particularly in the light of all the widely identified challenges we face. Now is surely the time for bold action. We must get our skills into shape, before it’s too late.

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