A guest blog from Dr Greg Walker, who is Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities and has worked in different parts of the tertiary education sector.

The Secretary of State for Education’s speech on vocational education rightly highlights the importance of technical skills at a higher level. Improving progression to high level skills that have vocational or technical element is a critical priority if we are to address our productivity challenges. Damian Hinds is also right to criticise aspects of our culture that undervalue technical skills – this is territory widely shared right across the various education sectors.

There is real scope for ‘Higher technical’ qualifications to help consolidate the myriad so-called ‘non-prescribed’ qualifications from 2022. Many forget that a whole range of these qualifications are on offer from professional organisations and other awarding bodies. Bringing these non-higher education qualifications into a coherent brand or offer for prospective trainees, tied to the government’s 25 Technical and Professional Education routes, is potentially a positive step. Some of these qualifications, such as for accounting technicians or legal executives, are long-standing and have not generally been provided by universities as they are closer to job training than work-related qualifications possessing an educational element. They are clearly a legitimate part of the ‘mixed economy’ in the Level 4 and 5 qualifications space.

But the Secretary of State’s speech seriously underplays opportunities for work-related, employer-designed education offered in higher education at Level 4 and 5. Universities, particularly modern universities, offer a range of provision in the guise of Foundation degrees and Higher National qualifications. University-provided sub-degree qualifications are also often part of the higher apprenticeship offer to employers within Standards. They are also leading the charge on developing and implementing high-quality higher and degree apprenticeships that are of huge value to work-based students.

These HE qualifications are in work-related areas and have a curriculum that is informed by employers, yet they possess a proper element of academic education (that is, some relevant theory concerning the technical area) that can help the student with knowledge and skills that can outlast a specific job role. This educational element will be all the more important as many lower-level technical roles will be those most affected by the impact of automation and AI, eroding the need for labour for many work tasks. So what may seem like a cost-saving measure for the government in the short-term may turn out to be a poor investment bet for all in the longer-term.

That sub-degrees HE qualifications such as Foundation degrees have not taken off in terms of take-up as they might have is more a function of the massive drop off in part-time study that has taken place since the introduction of a high-fee regime in 2012. It would be a pity to underplay their future role as work-focused education when a lack of uptake relates to flaws in government funding policy, not a deficiency in their intrinsic merits. Provision of Foundation degrees and HND/Cs should therefore very much be factored into the employer-led skills panels as much as any new ‘higher technicals’ may be.

We also need to ensure that any new Level 4 and 5 qualifications are designed in a way that does not leave learners stranded at Level 4 or 5 when they complete their programme. The advantage of HE awarded qualifications at these levels are that attainment within these qualifications is recognised as contributing to a full bachelor’s degree, if the student wishes to study further. Though the Secretary of State talks about these new qualifications from 2022 as possessing UCAS points, this is not the same as the academic credit that is recognised by degree-awarding bodies such as universities.

What was not flagged in the Secretary of State’s speech, however, is how smooth progression or ‘topping up’ could be ensured from these Higher Technical qualifications to a Level 6 degree. This can be a real challenge for non-prescribed qualifications at this level given the lack of education grounding in some of them. Without this, it would be a waste of time for learners and a poor value for money if two years of training were to be spent on a Level 4 and 5 award that could not then be ‘topped up’ to a full bachelor’s degree in 18 months or so of further study. For it is this higher level of qualifications that give the greatest return and recognition from employers – it is not unreasonable for people to aim for this level of education especially given the quality of learning support, facilities and wraparound advice that the full higher education experience gives.

In the big picture, it is highly doubtful that the UK is generating too many graduates at Level 6. As I have written before on this blog – and others have analysed in more depth – the UK is broadly in line with Western nations in the proportion of the younger age group with degrees. While this should not stop us from looking for better Level 4 and 5 options, it should certainly not lead us to treat these qualifications as an alternative option to a degree but spur us instead to improve progression from Level 3 (A Level/BTEC/T Level) where our performance could be substantially improved.