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Fixing our biggest skills gap: New report calls on universities to reverse the collapse in technical education

  • 23 August 2018

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is today publishing a new paper, Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5, on reviving the layers of education that lie between school-leaving exams and full honours degrees, where employers say they face the biggest skills gaps.

Only 10% of UK adults hold stand-alone qualifications at this level as their highest award, which is lower than in many other countries. More provision of this type would:

  • Enable employees to raise their skills;
  • tackle the needs of employers; and
  • offer a better path for mature students.

In the report, Professor Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), calls on universities in England to champion so-called Level 4 and 5 qualifications – including well-known brands like HNCs, HNDs and Foundation Degrees. He additionally calls on the Government to change the current student funding rules to promote this level of education.

Professor David Phoenix, author of the report said:

Too often, these qualifications are seen as exit awards for those that fail to complete their degree; but universities should be promoting them as reputable awards in their own right.

Weaknesses in secondary education have resulted in a poor supply of learners able to progress to these levels and the funding system discourages universities from offering them.

There is a common misconception that school leavers must jump straight to degree level if they are to continue learning. Highlighting and improving other options would make progression more achievable for many learners. We need a policy shift to make that happen.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the Foreword to the report, said:

Qualifications between school-leaving exams and honours degrees have collapsed in recent years. If there had been such a big drop in GCSEs, A-Levels or BAs, it would have been declared as a national crisis.

This is the area where we face the greatest skills shortages and one where we fare badly against many competitor nations. It is vital that we fix the problems urgently, not least because Brexit could make it even harder to recruit skilled labour from abroad.

There are currently four major official education reviews underway: on post-18 education and funding, on student loan classification, on technical education and on international students. So it is a great moment to build a new political consensus in the interests of individuals, employers and our future national wealth.

In a separate press release issued to coincide with the publication of the paper, Christopher Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK, said:

The report is right that we need to look at how learners can progress from school through to higher-level qualifications and skills. It is vital that this is looked at if we are to meet the future skills challenges we face.

Many universities are working to support this and we are seeing a growth in partnerships between higher and further education. These links and progression routes are helping to provide the flexible provision that employers need.

We also need to move away from the outdated and unhelpful distinction between technical and academic education. The jobs market is going to change rapidly in the coming years, so we need government policies that encourage people to upskill and promote more flexible ways of learning.

The report:

  • shows 36% of working-age adults in England have either a Level 2 qualification (GSCEs or equivalent) or less as their highest award, while a further 21% held a Level 3 (A-Levels or equivalent) qualification, meaning over 57% of working-age people have not successfully progressed to Level 4 or beyond;
  • explains how the one-shot nature of the student loan system pushes learners towards undertaking a full Bachelor’s degree, even when it is may not be the most appropriate option for them; and
  • recommends improving the skills pipeline by providing free access to learning through FE colleges for all learners regardless of age at Levels 2 and 3, raising the profile of Level 4 and 5 qualifications by encouraging higher education institutions to offer more of them and revising funding rules to introduce a ‘step-on, step-off’ system enabling leaners to undertake a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification and, subsequently, further funded study.

Notes for Editors

  1. Professor Dave Phoenix is Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), Chair of MillionPlus and a director of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB). In 2016, he wrote an earlier HEPI report, Making a Success of Employer-Sponsored Education.
  2. HEPI ( was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  3. The Department for Education’s review of Level 4 and Level 5 technical education was announced on 31 October 2017 and an ‘interim evidence overview’ was published on 14 August 2018.

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