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High potential landscapes: higher technical education in the UK

  • 11 December 2018
  • By Rebecca Mameli and Ian Pretty

A guest blog kindly contributed by:

Rebecca Mameli, Head of HE Research and Qualifications, Pearson. Pearson is the UK’s largest awarding body and a leader in the design, development and quality assurance of career focused higher education.

Ian Pretty, Chief Executive, Collab Group. Collab Group is a membership organisation which represents 36 leading UK Colleges and College Groups.

Just over a year ago the Department for Education announced its intention to review level 4 and 5 education, with a focus on how technical qualifications can meet the needs of learners and employers. In August of this year the DfE published the interim evidence report from this review, with key findings around uptake, funding, employer engagement, and delivery capacity. And a recent HEPI report by Dave Phoenix Filling the Biggest Skills gap: Increasing learning at levels 4 and 5 outlines the ways these levels can be better supported in order to fulfil their potential.

These activities have shone the spotlight on the potential of the level 4 and 5 educational space and have prompted us to think about what models of qualification design and delivery can best satisfy this potential. With the points made around higher technical education in Damian Hind’s recent speech on technical education now seems a good time to talk about these models.

The higher technical landscape

The higher technical qualification landscape at levels 4 and 5 is one of high potential. Our economy needs more level 4 and 5 technical skills, and the right model of education and training at these levels could be the key that unlocks that potential.

We need to create a system that recognises prestigious technical pathways and associated qualifications, supporting progression to and through employment and/or further study. We believe this can be achieved with the right qualification and delivery model, centred on collaboration, flexibility and employer recognition.

Despite our current record employment levels, the UK is suffering from considerable underemployment. This is in part due to an oversupply of university graduates undertaking jobs that are below their qualification level, and many people not acquiring the skills and qualifications required above level three, as for many there is a belief that three-year on campus higher education is the only option available to them. Many more learners could be better suited to undertaking studies at the 4/5 level, but may be dissuaded due to limited awareness and information on the choices available to them, which the DfE recognise in a recent report. There is a clear wage premium associated with holding a qualification at these levels and so they could both act as a driver of social mobility, if learners are aware of and able to access them, and drive productivity.

The prestige of level 4 and 5 qualifications matters because we are facing a host of complex challenges: from our lagging productivity levels, skills gaps in key industries and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. These challenges necessitate a deep skills base that we can draw upon. This is recognised by the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which foregrounds the role of higher technical skills in boosting employment opportunities and making the UK more globally competitive.

A qualification model that meets the needs

The current level 4 and 5 qualifications landscape includes a range of qualifications: BTEC Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, Foundation Degrees, Certificates and Diplomas of Higher Education and other technical qualifications and professional diplomas.

What are the features of a qualification model that meets the needs of this high-potential landscape and its learners? Two essential components are flexibility and employer-relevance.

The BTEC Higher Nationals (HNs) embody these features in the way they are designed, developed and delivered.


The HNs have a reputation with employers as a relevant and high-quality qualification and training option. This reputation has been gained via the use of the HN as a long-standing technical training route – particularly in sectors such as Construction and Engineering. A recent HEFCE-commissioned report found that ‘Overall, employers have a reasonable awareness of the different types of intermediate qualifications, being most familiar with HNCs and HNDs (79%), followed by foundation degrees (67%)’.

With the latest redevelopment of the HN suite in 2016, this employer-relevance has been strengthened

even further. This has been enabled via robust engagement with key employer and professional body stakeholders to define qualification purpose and content and the specialist pathways for particular occupational areas. In addition, professional recognition is built into the HNs, either by their recognition by professional bodies, or by providing exemptions to professional qualifications.

Relevant Higher Apprenticeship (HA) standards are also considered in the development process and incorporated into the qualification content to support use of HNs in on-programme delivery of HAs.


The HNs provide access for a broad range of learners, including older age groups, therefore supporting social mobility. The 2017 State of the Nation Report on social mobility gives the example of Coventry University’s Scarborough campus using the HNs as part of a flexible HNC/HND/degree learning model to support inclusion of groups who would otherwise find it harder to access higher education. The ability to offer HNs in part-ti

me mode is also supportive of those learning in work, allowing for development and progression for those training for current roles or progressing into new ones.

Another important feature of the HNs’ flexibility is the ability to certificate at HNC at level 4 and HND at level 5, therefore gaining industry recognised qualifications at defined points in their studies. This ladder of learning approach provides progression flexibility for those in work or with other commitments.

The HNs are also designed in such a way that they do not limit progression to further study beyond level 5.  In order to support learner progression beyond level 5, the appropriate level of demand is incorporated (level 4 HNC, and level 5 HND) when writing content and assessment criteria – this is achieved by the use of level descriptors for the HN suite which have been built with reference to the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) qualification descriptors. HN programmes are also mapped to the relevant QAA Subject Benchmarks to further support progression to level 6 study.

A delivery mechanism that meets the demand – advocating collaboration not competition

Most level 4 and 5 provision is delivered by further education (FE) colleges (52%), as well as by universities (32%) and private and alternative training providers (16%).

FE colleges are primarily known for delivering at levels 1-3, whilst universities are primarily known for delivering levels at level 6 and above. Both types of providers see the potential to expand their offerings at levels 4 and 5.

Ultimately there will be no one size fits all approach when it comes to delivering higher technical education. But the key will be in all these models utilising collaborative partnerships with a broad range of stakeholde

rs. Effective technical education cannot be delivered in a silo, and this is the challenge that we collectively need to overcome via a collaborative approach to delivery. In the Secretary of State for Education’s recent speech on technical education the minister shows agreement with the need for a partnership approach to effectively delivery this type of education.

There are great opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration around new Institutes of Technology. The IoT model necessitates the development of strong partnerships between FE colleges, Higher Education Institutes and employers. By harnessing a wide network of stakeholders and operating through a hub-and-spoke model, IoTs could deliver higher technical pathways that provide learners with clear progression opportunities whilst also responding to local and regional labour market needs. IoTs and FE colleges will understand local needs and tailor their provision accordingly – another need recognised in Damian Hind’s recent speech.

There are of course challenges for colleges being able to deliver higher level provision. To offer high quality options, teaching staff will need to remain up to date with professional standards and requirements; and colleges will need to cover the often high costs associated with implementing, operating and maintaining industry standard equipment and processes.

This is where partnership between employers and industry is crucial to ensure that providers have access to industry accredited teaching staff and industry standard equipment. Greater sharing and integration between providers and employers would provide mutual benefits to both parties and wider society.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Very well argued case, which merits wide support.

    One advantage of the strategy is it does not require new institutions.

    However, FE Colleges must ensure they have the right mix of qualified staff with current specialists on secondment from industry.

    They also need to provide update training (ideally via secondment with leading employers) to their staff to make sure their skills and learning are up to date and up to standard.

    The Government must provide additional funding that will result in top quality teachers for top quality students on relevant and appropriate courses that meet and even exceed employers’ requirements.

    This important change must not be and cannot be done on the cheap and requires outstanding and dedicated teachers and support staff that in turn will attract enthusiastic and able students of high quality.

    This is the start of a new era of Appropriate Higher Education and Training that will be world class enough to attract the best of European students to study in the UK, including the Germans.

    We must make the UK the best in the world for Technical, Professional, Appropriate, Business ,Vocational, Digital 21st Century Education and Skills

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