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The Augar report and the not-so-missing middle

  • 5 July 2019
  • By Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities.

MillionPlus has been at the forefront of organisations calling for the Level 4 and 5 education space in England to be revived as an outcome of the Augar process and it is pleasing to see this agenda picked up in the report. These important qualifications, such as Foundation degrees or Higher Nationals, have always had a significant proportion of those studying them as part-time students or those whose course has been sponsored by their employer.

Their decline in take-up, much highlighted in the Augar Review, related to the funding changes introduced by the government in 2012 which has affected part-time study generally, combined with the effect of the great recession and public spending reductions on private and public sector training budgets since 2009. Modern universities have never lost their interest in, or engagement with, study at this level, something reflected in the fact that just under a third of standalone Level 4 and 5 qualifications are provided predominantly by these universities.

What’s missing?

The Augar Report uses the catchy term of ‘the missing middle’ in relation to Level 4 and 5, a phrase that oversimplifies the situation we face in reviving this area of provision. Someone reading the report without knowledge of higher education might think that those studying for a degree rather than, say, a Higher National Certificate, miss out on two key levels of higher education. But any student on a degree programme at a university is, in their first and second years of study, directly engaged in Level 4 and 5 study. Furthermore, at modern universities and other providers many courses remain work-related, enabling students to benefit from programmes which should be categorised as ‘higher technical education’ in Augar’s terms.

There is therefore nothing ‘missing’ in this for students on degree programmes, unless higher technical education is arbitrarily defined as a specific technician qualification, which is but a subset of higher technical education in any proper definition. Yet the Augar report makes misleading claims here, including that England has:

  • a “very small number of Level 4/5 students” (p.33), that there
  •  “were only 190,000 people studying at Level 4 and 5 in 2016/17” (p.34), and even that
  • the rise in degree study has been “partly caused” by the “steady decline in the number of people studying higher technical provision” (p.123).

These statements could only be technically accurate on the premise that only ‘standalone’ Level 4 and 5 qualifications constitute the whole of Level 4 and 5 study in England, a definition which tendentiously and wrongly excludes the huge scale of Level 4 and 5 study experienced by students within degree provision, i.e. several hundreds of thousands of students each year. There is no reason not to consider these students as Level 4 and 5 learners, period.

Ironically, the report elsewhere seems to implicitly concede this reality when it calls for universities to award all students what it calls ‘interim’ HE qualifications, which would be designed to ‘normalise’ Level 4 and 5 awards alongside degrees. Qualifications such as Certificates or Diplomas of Higher Education, which are at Levels 4 and 5 respectively, are currently awarded to those not completing their degree, not to all students as they progress through their programme. This is a positive proposal worthy of consideration for sure, but an acid test of this proposal is whether this can become a universal practice in the sector, with the likes of Oxford or King’s College London awarding interim qualifications as much as modern universities might wish to. ‘Normalising’ sub-degree qualifications by this route will only happen if this is a truly sector-wide practice.

Recommendation for duplication?

Report also contains a lack of clarity in the diverse purposes of apprenticeship and level 4 and 5 study. This is reflected in its endorsement of proposals for ‘National Standards for Higher Technical Education’ as the basis for kitemarking these sub-degree qualifications as relevant for employment and eligibility for full loan and student maintenance support. MillionPlus welcomed those recommendations in the review designed to boost flexible learning and smaller chunks of learning (‘credit’) that fall short of a qualification. Yet apprenticeships, as the Augar report itself states, are a form of on-the-job skills training for employees, based on occupational standards now devised by employer trailblazers (previously by Sector Skills Councils) under the auspices of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. Level 4 and 5 qualifications can and do fit into some of these standards (and frameworks elsewhere in the UK), with their educational as well as skills-based aspects, while the cost of this education and training can be reclaimed by employers from their levy payment.

Yet the Augar report surprisingly omits an explanation of, even at a high level, how National Standards for Higher Technical Education might differ from the role of apprenticeship standards. This confusion might store up trouble for employers, as I fear that parallel sets of apprenticeship standards and higher technical education standards will simply create duplication and confusion for them unless these are carefully distinguished. Those who have seen the (painfully) slow progress in devising apprenticeship standards to cover the range of occupational areas since the Richard Review in 2012, a process far from complete even in 2019, will know that this is no small task.

Engaging to address challenges

The Department for Education is working with stakeholders in relation to this crucial agenda in a positive spirit, with officials openly looking at a range of options on how take up in this sub-degree space can be enhanced, such as through broadening the use of the apprenticeship levy to include employer-sponsored qualifications that are genuinely work-related and productivity enhancing, not just those tied to apprenticeship standards. There is much to address here and MillionPlus, through its agenda-setting and engagement in this area, is contributing to the development of sensible proposals that will help employers, future students and work-based learners achieve their aims.

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