This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor at London South Bank University. You can find Dave on Twitter @David_PhoenixVC
Most significant in the Prime Minister’s speech at Exeter College in September last year was the suggestion that further education colleges will be given access to the main student finance system ‘for a specific list of valuable and mainly technical courses’.
These courses are almost certainly Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) – the Department for Education’s new kitemark for existing and new qualifications at Level 4 (and potentially 5 and even 6), which meet the occupational standards established by employers with the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (IFATE).
The Government hopes that opening up the finance system will create greater competition within the sector, streamlining the student finance system. It may also help bridge some of the regulatory gaps between higher education and further education by giving an impetus for providers to create new articulation agreements for those learners who wish to continue studying to Level 6, after completing their Level 4.
Bridging further education and higher education is particularly pertinent to my institution, London South Bank University (LSBU). For the first time, our new Corporate Strategy encompasses the whole LSBU Group, which in addition to the University, includes a further education college and a Multi-Academy Trust. To mark its publication, we hosted a roundtable on the topic of HTQs, chaired by former Universities and Science Minister Lord David Willetts; and attended by colleagues from professional bodies, sector organisations and think tanks as well as the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
The group reflected on previous attempts to create new Level 4 and 5 qualifications – including Foundation Degrees under New Labour. It was generally agreed that, while introducing HTQs might solve a supply-side issue by creating a high-profile kitemark, student numbers are unlikely to increase unless there is also an effort to stimulate demand. Part of this demand should include providing maintenance loans for all those studying at Levels 4 and 5. Part-time students do not currently qualify and this could potentially exclude many mature students from studying a HTQ as a way to upskill. In addition, it was felt that these Level 4 HTQs would be more attractive if they were to provide not only the skills requirements of the employer but also meet the educational and content requirement that will enable onward progression so the qualification isn’t seen as a ‘dead end’.
Above all, it was agreed that without significant increases in the numbers of learners achieving Level 3 to qualify for admission to these qualifications, substantial growth would (or could) not materialise. Therefore, the Government must not, in encouraging further education providers to focus on technical education, inadvertently encourage them to neglect the vital pipeline leading up to Level 4 by losing sight of their roles as providers of lower level and community education.
Finally, we discussed collaboration. HTQs, in addition to meeting an economic function, are seen as a way of tidying up some of the ‘contested ground’ of Level 4 and 5 – sitting as they do between higher education and further education. Although the complex quality assurance regimes across Levels 4 and 5 still need simplifying, providing a joint finance system could encourage collaboration between further education and higher education; many learners undoubtedly would benefit from longer in the more actively supportive further education environment before making the jump to the more self-directed learning typical of universities.
The group reflected on college and university mergers, both more formal – such as the Bolton College-University merger or the LSBU Group – and ‘looser’ arrangements such as the education providers within the West London Alliance. It was agreed that the most important element of successful collaboration is that each institution is able to retain the distinctiveness of its provision and retains a clarity of vision rather than seeing to be all things to all people.
The Skills White Paper, having been delayed to this year, provides an enormous opportunity to expand post-16 technical education and provide new routes for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ who do not follow the route of GCSEs to A-Levels to Bachelor’s Degrees. For it to be successful, the Government must ensure that learners who choose a technical path are supported to do so. This means providing the necessary finance, including maintenance loans and ensuring that they have routes to higher level study if they choose to upskill after a period in industry.