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Shining a light on Non-Prescribed Qualifications

  • 7 August 2019

This blog has been kindly contributed by Professor Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University

The Augar Review has provided much to consider; and one area on which it shines a gentle light is that of “Non-Prescribed” qualifications. For those who are unfamiliar, Non-Prescribed courses lead to qualifications, which, although at Levels 4 and 5, are not considered to be “higher education” and therefore sit outside of the higher education framework. They are instead classified as “higher level” skills courses and lead to certificates, diplomas and other awards in a wide range of vocational areas.

Non-Prescribed qualifications are owned by awarding organisations (AOs), including City and Guilds, Pearson and professional bodies, and are delivered principally by Further Education Colleges or private training providers, although a few universitiess also offer them.

According to a report by ICF Consulting undertaken on behalf of the Department for Education, in 2016/17 there were 666 Non-Prescribed qualifications (compared to 2,734 Prescribed). Of these, 284 were diplomas, 169 were certificates, 127 were awards and 55 were NVQs. 46% of learners on these programmes were studying qualifications in Business, Administration and Law; with a further 15% studying Health, Public Services and Care; and 11% Studying Education and Training. 

Being outside of the Higher Education quality framework, Non-Prescribed qualifications are regulated by Ofqual, which assesses their Level and determines the number of credits they comprise, based on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF). A substantive difference between Prescribed and Non-Prescribed qualifications is their varying sizes. A Prescribed Level 4 qualification generally amounts to 120 credits. Non-Prescribed qualifications, such as those listed below, vary significantly in the number of credits awarded with some having fewer than 30 and some over 120.

Examples of non-prescribed qualifications:
Level 4 ACCA Diploma in Accounting and Business (89 credits) Awarded by: the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants  

Pearson Edexcel Level 4 NVQ Diploma in Construction Site Supervision (Construction) (123 credits) Awarded by: Pearson Ltd 

Level 4 Diploma in Advanced Hairdressing Techniques (50 Credits) Awarded by: City and Guilds of London Institute 

CIPD Level 5 Certificate In Human Resource Management (32 credits) Awarded by: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 

City & Guilds Level 5 Diploma For Assistant Practitioners in Healthcare (120 credits)Awarded by: City and Guilds of London Institute

Unlike Prescribed qualifications (such as HNCs), learners on Non-Prescribed courses are not eligible for HE loans or maintenance support. Instead, they are able to take Advanced Learner Loans, with the maximum loan amount determined by the Education and Skills Funding Agency based on the subject, the educational level and the number of credits/learning hours required.  In 2017/18, the average cost of a Non-Prescribed qualification was around £2,700.  

The Education Skills and Funding Agency has the authority, but no formal duty, to fund Non-Prescribed higher education. If a qualification does attract funding then, under the Common Inspection Framework applicable to FE provision, it is liable for inspection by Ofsted.

The Augar Review recommends that this current system of Prescribed and Non-Prescribed be replaced by new employer-led national standards, against which qualifications will be kite-marked. The DfE has subsequently launched a consultationon these new “Higher Technical Qualifications”. Kite-marked qualifications would be eligible for full HE funding (£7,500 under Augar’s proposals), student loan support and the same teaching grant as Level 6 qualifications. Previously non-prescribed qualifications, which do not receive the kitemark,  will remain outside the higher education framework. The Review further recommends that ‘once national standards are fully established, there is a case for government to review this group of qualifications’ – presumably with a view to encouraging their discontinuation, perhaps by ceasing to assess them under the RQF.

We can probably assume that many of those Non-Prescribed qualifications with current enrolments are valued by the employers that pay to send their employees on them. Should Augar’s proposals be implemented, we might therefore expect a good number to be endorsed by these same employers and thence to become kite-marked and be eligible for student loans. Although these programmes are already eligible for Advanced Learner Loans, being kite-marked may increase their attraction and increase the associated funding to HE levels. This is likely to be an area that the Treasury will wish to look at in some detail.

However, even if a qualification receives a kite-mark from employers by meeting occupational standards, this does not necessarily mean that it will meet the educational standards to become Prescribed. Many qualifications may also be too narrowly focused or simply too small to evidence the learning and achievement expected from a Level 4 or 5 qualification. The Augar review recommends that ‘The OfS should become the national regulator of all non-apprenticeship provision at Levels 4 and above’. The DfE consultation suggests that this will include all kite-marked qualifications. Given that non-prescribed qualifications are currently quality-assured by Ofsted, it remains to be seen how they will match up to the quality requirements of the QAA.

There is also a further question about how these newly kite-marked qualifications might interact with the Review’s proposal for a Lifelong Learning Allowance (LLA). Augar proposes that learners should be able to use their LLA to fund individual 30 credit modules; building these over time into a degree. But it is difficult to see how a kite-marked but highly-specific vocational certificate at Level 4, for example, would necessarily develop the skills for a learner to enter into the second year of a degree; and it further raises  questions regarding the extent to which universities might be expected to reconstruct their courses to accommodate learners presenting such qualifications.

Augar, in examining this little explored area, raises some interesting possibilities for learners and providers but at the same time brings to the fore a number of questions about funding, regulation and institutional autonomy. This area certainly  warrants further discussion; and there is a danger that in potentially rushing to a solution we end up with a more confusion rather than less – more complex ranges of courses; more confusion over the regulation and assurance of  HE; and increased cost; without additional educational benefit for learners or employers.


  1. albert wright says:

    Very interesting information. Very useful background to new, proposed Technical Skills Qualifications.

    Opportunities and dangers for the future and certainly a more complex situation, making life more difficult for employers.

    I can see job candidates claiming to be qualified at levels 4 and 5 but omitting the fact that it only covers 30 hours learning and not 3 years.

    Funding implications a major concern as are assessment and quality control.

    Is this a plot by big business to get the Government to fund more private and in house staff training at the tax payers expense?

    Is this the next chapter at a lower level of Government funded MBAs by stealth?

  2. Emilia says:

    Very interesting indeed.
    What people don’t know is the fact that non prescribed courses, which in certain occasions are old non regulated provisions are listed by Pearson as subdegree and aproved and funded by the Department of Education as prescribed higher education courses.
    Therefore, students are ending with huge debts and a worthless piece of paper.They are paying for a subdegree and they are ending up with a worthless certificate or diploma with no perspective of achievement ( zero value).
    I have informed Nick Hilman ( Hepi) about this alleged fraud degree and fraud in public money taking place on day light for years ,nobody seems to care. Eventually, DFE will have to answers these questions at some point ,no doubt about that.
    I have informed DFE( Fraud Department),QAA,SLC Counter FraudTeam, Ofqual,OFS .They all play a blind eye .No wonder why,the latest investigations into the alleged frauds in the student loan in Grafton College and GSM have a dead end. Did anyone notice a common element within the colleges which have been refused entries into the Register ( for no meeting Ch B3 requirments) or colleges accused of fraud? They all delivered Pearson’ higher education courses’. Explaining the diference between non prescribed and prescribed course ,it is helpful for someone with knowdlege but not for the pure students who actually don’t know higher education.They are relying on the state which are there to validate and grant the credibility of an institution and the authenticity of an award. Very sad and dangerous ,a shame for the entire higher education system .

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