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The Government risks narrowing the path to higher level skills

  • 26 January 2021
  • By Scott Kelly

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Scott Kelly. Scott lectures in British Politics at NYU and was an adviser to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning 2010-12. He has written papers for HEPI on BTECs and Levels 4 and 5.

For anyone who has been involved in skills policy for longer than the average government minister, the further education white paper comes with a distinct whiff of déjà vu. It is perhaps no bad thing that the core objectives, such as increasing the number of adults with higher technical qualifications, are familiar – even if successive governments have failed to deliver in practice. But it’s also depressing to see the same approaches tried yet again when they were only recently judged to have failed. For example, it’s rather galling to read that the Government intends to establish a new Skills and Productivity Board when it abolished the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, with an almost identical remit, just four years ago.

As has been widely noted, the lack of a multi-year comprehensive spending review means the white paper is rather green when it comes to details of how the system of entitlements and loans it outlines will work and be funded. Yet the commitment to a Lifetime Skills Entitlement, which will make student loans available to those studying at Levels 4 and 5 is certainly welcome, even if it won’t become a reality until 2025 at the earliest.

Even if the Department for Education (DfE) wins future battles with the Treasury and delivers the funding to back-up these promises, there are still reasons to fear the proposals will not help more people develop higher level skills. This is because the Government has chosen to double-down on its commitment to T levels and a binary divide between academic and technical pathways. In future, higher level technical qualifications must be approved by the Institute for Apprentices and Technical Education, with the roll out of approved qualifications set by ‘Government priorities and early T level waves.’ The Government is looking to reduce funding of non-approved higher technical qualifications as early as 2023.

We are already seeing the negative impact of reducing the number of qualifications available at level 3. Earlier this month Ofqual warned about the scale of the disruption that will be caused by the DfE’s decision to remove funding from Applied General qualifications such as BTECs. As Ofqual noted, the number of students accessing HE with BTECs continues to grow, with the proportion accepted with A levels alone having fallen from 63 per cent in 2017 to around 60 per cent in 2019. Ofqual echo the concerns I raised in my report for HEPI on BTECs in 2017. De-funding Applied Generals will have a disproportionate impact of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. T levels do not meet the needs of many of the learners who currently take BTECs. Forcing students to make a clear choice between academic and technical qualifications at 16 is likely to mean many who might otherwise have taken a mix of qualifications will stick with just A levels. There is a clear danger that young people are being set-up to fail.

By taking the same approach to higher technical qualifications the government will further narrow the options available to learners. We are told there are too many qualifications, that the standard is variable and that they do not necessarily meet the needs of employers. Yet, the evidence to support these claims is scant. Blaming the large number of qualifications on offer for low take-up is to lose sight of the real issue. The reason why we have so many qualifications is because the English vocational system evolved from the bottom up, independently of the state. The qualifications landscape may be confusing, but it is market driven, and as such contains many well-regarded awards linked to specific job roles.

The English system is very different from countries such as Germany where qualifications reflect longstanding corporatist structures, embracing both employers and unions. Blanket qualifications require a high level of industry buy-in to work, but without corporatist institutions and restrictive licences to practice this is unlikely to be achieved. While the white paper points with approval to the effectiveness of German Chambers of Commerce at achieving employer buy-in to the apprenticeship system, it makes it clear that the Government is ‘not proposing to make membership of Chambers of Commerce compulsory.’ As with previous attempts to overhaul the qualification system, up to and including the introduction of T levels, policy is likely to fail because it falls between two stalls – neither driven by the market nor based on sufficient industry engagement to ensure employers really value the qualifications on offer.

Instead of engaging in yet another pointless overhaul of qualifications, the Government would be better advised to focus its efforts on removing the real impediments to the growth of higher technical learning. This must mean simplifying the complex system by which this provision is funded and replacing it with a structure that facilitates collaboration between HE institutions and FE colleges.

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