It would be a great pity if the bulk of the Augar review were to be rejected as a result of criticism of its headline recommendations on student fees, or completely lost in the general hubbub generated by the Conservative leadership race. While the concern expressed in the report about the paucity of learners qualified in higher technical qualifications is not new, the fact that the report has so much to say on this subject is to be welcomed. Philip Augar’s foreword to the report echoes the words of Tony Crosland, who as Secretary of State for Education and Science warned ‘We shall not survive in the world if we in Britain alone down-grade the non-university professional and technical sector.’ Yet in the half century that has passed since Crosland’s speech we have done precisely that, and as a result become even more tightly gripped by what he described as ‘our snobbish caste-ridden hierarchical obsession with university status.’
In a pamphlet published by HEPI in 2015 I examined the reasons why public policy has singularly failed to fill what the Augar review describes as ‘the missing middle’ of professional and technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5. One central issue is the way these qualifications are validated and funded. Often higher technical qualifications exist in what I described as a ‘no-man’s-land’ between the further and higher education sectors, or in the case of ‘prescribed’ qualifications, are a small part of the wider HE system. Consequently, higher technical qualifications lack institutional champions whose core mission is based around study at this level.
The recommendations of the Augar report could potentially overcome key barriers to growth. In theory, the proposed simplification of the fees system across the higher and further education sectors addresses one of the central problems identified by my HEPI paper. However, for this to be become the case it is vital that the proposed distinction between kitemarked qualifications – which would be eligible for full fees and teaching grant – and non-kitemarked qualifications – which would not – doesn’t become as pernicious as the current divide between prescribed and non-prescribed courses. To prevent this from happening, policy makers must recognise that while there is clearly a case for removing funding from qualifications that are low in economic value, a radical shake-up of the system would only further confuse learners and employers alike. Higher Nationals remain a well-respected and understood brand, while a large number of niche qualifications are linked to important job roles that do not necessarily require a large number of learners every year. Removing funding from these qualifications in an attempt to create a single ‘higher technical brand’ could actually result in learner numbers falling even further.
Augar also recommends that the Office for Students become the sole regulator for quality at levels 4 and 5, as it currently is for prescribed courses. As I noted in my HEPI paper, the current complex system of qualification design, validation and quality assurance inhibits the development of short-cycle technical qualifications tailored to meet employer needs. While the simplification of quality assurance is vital, there is at least a question mark over whether the Office for Students, with its focus on the higher education sector, is well suited to this purpose. Higher technical qualifications are more directly linked to specific work-place roles and current work-place practice than qualifications at other levels and the regulatory system must be able to respond to such dynamic demand.
However, even if these pitfalls are avoided, there are reasons to doubt that simplifying the way higher technical qualifications are funded and validated will be enough to bring the level of provision anywhere close to that found in other comparable economies. In order for significantly more learners to believe that taking courses at these levels is worthwhile they must have confidence – not just in the qualification itself but also in the providers. High quality provision is key to filling the missing middle and, as the report acknowledges, building this will take significant investment, both in the college estate and the further education workforce. The report recommends that an additional dedicated capital investment of at least £1 billion should be made in further education colleges over the next Spending Review. Whether this funding materialises will be a key test of how seriously the government really is about reviving higher technical education.