This blog has been kindly written for us by Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities. Greg has worked in different parts of the tertiary education sector in his career. He recently wrote a blog for us on the topic of England’s choice for post-18 education.


Work-related, vocational, technical education has become one of the key policy debates in recent years. The Augar Review is rightly making this, particularly at sub-degree level, a core part of its work. Those working with modern universities have always had a focus on this area – not least with the innovation in the 2000s of Foundation degrees – so attention to this area is welcome. Given this focus, what are the potential solutions that would address the concerns of policy-makers and employers?

First, a caution. Framing the debate concerning degree vs. sub-degree provision as if it were a trade-off misses the point. Our national challenge for social mobility and progression is the lack of people with a key gateway Level 3 qualification by age 25. Scandalously, more 25-year olds are left with only Level 2 qualifications (or below) than those at that age who have attained any qualifications at either at sub-degree or degree level higher education. You would not recognise this fact from some of the debate swirling around higher education participation in the last year or two, concentrating as it does on a ‘sub-degree deficit’.

Build on existing strengths

First, we should accentuate what we already do well: UK universities, especially modern universities, have a course portfolio highly focused on technical and professional areas, very often on programmes recognised by relevant professional bodies. It is not just about the subject focus and curriculum of programmes – the mode of delivery is important too. Work-based higher education, such as degree apprenticeships and employer-sponsored programmes, are a pivotal way in which the needs of the skills economy are increasingly met. These courses provide students with classroom knowledge and on-the-job experience. The bulk of employer-sponsored programmes take place within modern universities in the UK, reflecting their close links with business and public agencies.

We need to do more to make Level 4 and 5 sub-degree provision more accessible and attractive for those who do not wish to spend three years studying a Bachelor’s level qualification. But this is not because sub-degree provision is always more work-relevant than Level 6 provision – I remain surprised at how often people forget outside universities that Bachelor’s provision includes within it Level 4 and Level 5 learning in the first two years.

How big an issue is the ‘sub-degree deficit’?

Some of the ‘sub-degree deficit’ corresponds to the structure of England’s economy, which is overwhelmingly service-based compared to economies such as Germany where technical routes are well recognised and valued and where manufacturing remains the economic lynchpin. As a former universities minister argues in a recent book, there is little point in overhauling our higher education system to fit the structure of an economy we do not have and are unlikely to develop in the foreseeable future. This is not to underestimate the need for technical skills for manufacturing, but it is only to give some perspective to studies that compare UK sub-degree provision to those on the continent (see the OECD’s Skills Beyond School report).

Using the levy to support employer-sponsored Foundation degrees

This is certainly not a counsel of despair – we can and should do more for prospective sub-degree students and/or their employers seeking a skills and productivity boost. This will be best achieved by refreshing the potential of the Foundation degree as a Level 5 qualification and specifically to allow employer-sponsored Foundation degrees fees to be funded directly through the apprenticeship levy, as a alternative option for employersFar from being ‘yesterday’s higher education programme’, Foundation degrees retain strengths that the Augar panel should take on board fully. This proposal on Foundation degrees would not tie them to an apprenticeship standard because Foundation degrees have features that make them a highly relevant option for employers and students in rejuvenating the sub-degree space.

But why Foundation degrees?

Foundation degrees possess three advantages over other proposals to revive sub-degree provision. These features have been built into the programmes from the start:

  • Their design is, in a sense, ‘compressed’ – two years if studied full-time yet fully adaptable for part-time study.
  • The curriculum, as part of the nature of the Foundation degree and the guidance on them, must be employer-informed and work-related yet retaining an educational (not just training) aspect that makes it distinctively higher education.
  • Delivery is flexible, ensuring that further education colleges can co-deliver elements of the degree where appropriate. Many Foundation degrees have been successfully designed and delivered with further education colleges, strengthening the skills infrastructure of the locality.

Buy why plump for Foundation degrees as a key part of the solution when they’ve not been the saviour for technical or professional education since their inception? First, because they are fully recognised within the framework of higher education qualifications established to help comparability and progression of students to full degree provision. Topping-up to a full degree is also an integral part of their design, which often can be done in a further 18 months. Proposals from other quarters (i.e. the Association of Colleges) for ‘Higher Technical’ qualifications at sub-degree level, which would not be recognised as higher education qualifications under the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) framework, may stunt progression opportunities for students. Rebranding or tweaking ‘non-prescribed’ qualifications at this level would also have this major disadvantage.

Second, Foundation degrees have not been given a fair run and have been hit by the decline in part-time higher education since the high fees regime was introduced in 2012. Foundation degrees are studied in both full-time and part-time modes but their work-focused aspect tallies well with part-time study. The drop in part-time study has meant a drop in overall Foundation degree numbers just at the moment when their contribution could and should have been coming to the fore.

A proposal to consider

This is where an apprenticeship levy opportunity comes in. Allowing employer-sponsored Foundation degrees to be funded through the levy would enable employers to rocket boost their plans for workforce upskilling. This proposal to flex the levy in this way is just the job as we face missed targets on apprenticeship figures. The Augar Review has a viable policy option here on Foundation degrees that should not be missed.