Beyond the headline announcements of the Augar Review, there are wide-ranging proposals, covering everything from Level 2 to adult education. Its recommendations regarding the promotion and expansion of Level 4 and 5 education demand particular attention, and I am pleased to see several recommendations I sought in my paper for HEPI last year (Filling in the Biggest Skills Gap).
The current student loans system and its apparent ‘one shot’ approach encourages learners to use their maximum entitlement by undertaking a full Level 6 qualification. It also provides little incentive for universities to offer a more diverse range of qualifications. To overcome this, the report recommends the introduction a lifelong learning loan allowance for modules (of minimum 30 credits) of Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications. By providing a means for learners to “step-on” and “step-off” it is hoped they will be encouraged to study at lower levels initially, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to top up their learning later if needed to further their career.
To boost the profile and esteem of Level 4 and 5 the report also recommends that institutions should award at least one interim qualification (either a CertHe [Level 4] or DipHe [Level 5]) to all students who are following a Level 6 course successfully. This would help establish awards at these levels as positive targets, rather than as just early exit awards.
In order for such a system to work, universities will need to pay heed to how they build such qualifications within their degrees – something we have some experience of at London South Bank University (LSBU).
This approach is applied principally in our Construction Division in the School of Architecture and Built Environment, due to the esteem that Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) hold within the construction industry. At degree level we currently offer BScs in Quantity Surveying, Building Survey and Construction Management. Each is fully accredited by their relevant professional body (RICS, CIOB or CIAT) meeting their full academic requirements and mapping to their educational frameworks. Courses are available for study part time (5 years) as well as full time (3 years) and a significant proportion of students undertake them with employer sponsorship,
Alongside these courses, we offer an HNC in Construction, available either part-time (2 years) or full-time (1 year). This course offers far more flexible entry criteria, opening up progression opportunities for those that would not meet the normal university entry criteria to enter directly onto the Level 6 course. Entry to the surveying degree requires a total UCAS tariff of 128 points, typically made up from A-Levels or a Level 3 BTEC qualification. For the HNC we will typically accept candidates with A-Levels or other Level 3 qualifications to a tariff of 60 points and also welcome those with industrial experience who wish to pursue an academic qualification. The main criteria for the HNC is that the university needs to be confident the student will be able to cope with the academic rigours of the course and we look for evidence to support this from their previous studies and industrial experience.
When studying full time, Year 1 of both the HNC and the Degree covers the same specialist content but the students are taught separately to enable a different support environment for the HNC students. The success of our approach is based on recognition that the HNC has a student cohort which is much more variable in terms of their age, experience and educational background. Completion of the HNC (both full and part time) offers a clear progression opportunity and subject to meeting specified grades, students are able to progress to either Year 2 of the full time or Year 3 of the part time degree, with many of these students going on to perform very well at degree level and beyond.
Providing an entry route into the degree via the HNC not only provides greater opportunity to learners from varying educational backgrounds; it also gives employers the flexibility to manage their financial investment step by step. They can fund a single year in the knowledge that this will provide their employee will a reputable qualification, whilst retaining the opportunity for them to progress immediately or at a later date. Interestingly, employers and their staff overwhelmingly see the benefit of progression and over 90% of employer-sponsored students who complete the HNC are, at some point, subsequently funded to carry on with the degree.
Our experience with construction courses shows that qualifications at levels 4 and 5 can be successfully embedded into a progression pathway. The creation of a single lifelong learning loan allowance offers real potential to allow individuals (and their employers) greater freedom to align learning with the needs of their career while simultaneously boosting the numbers of learners achieving Levels 4 and 5.
Jane Baker, Director of Higher Education Qualifications at Pearson, who design, develop and validate Higher Nationals, agrees with the value of embedded qualifications to support a flexible, lifelong learning approach to higher education provision: ‘Higher Nationals are developed with career outputs in mind, with employer and professional body engagement a central feature of the qualification design and development process, to ensure they include the right content and standards. While they lead to employment outcomes for students in and of themselves, they are also flexibly structured to support the kinds of lifelong and employer relevant learning that London South Bank University, amongst others, are delivering. The Higher Nationals therefore offer the ladder of learning, with recognized and valued accreditation points at level 4 and 5 – and articulation to level 6 and beyond, allowing for flexibility of learning and attainment while delivering the higher level technical skills required by industry and effectively supporting the ‘missing middle ’.