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Why it is *not* a choice between ‘university’ and ‘vocational education’?

  • 4 May 2021
  • By Mike Ratcliffe

This blog was kindly contributed by Mike Ratcliffe, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, writing in a personal capacity. Mike also runs his own blog Moremeansbetter and you can find Mike on Twitter @mike_rat.

Apparently, 85% of people asked what they would want to have happen next for 18-year olds (if they were their parents) confirm they would want them to further their education. The Social Market Foundation (SMF) had surveyed people in September 2019 and found that only 8% of people thought those 18-year olds should just get a job.

Of course, that is not the headlines generated from the report. The SMF poll had split education into ‘going to university’ and studying a ‘vocational qualification (e.g. a technical or practical qualification specific to a trade, including apprenticeship)’. This opposition, that going to university excludes studying a vocational qualification specific to a ‘trade’, which could be both practical and technical, is false. There is no simple continuum on which ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ qualifications sit, lines get drawn on different criteria at different times. There is also no simple continuum of the type of place that you might be taking that qualification. Read too much into ‘going to university’ and you conjure up the full-time residential student mode, probably involving lawns.

The headlines went with more people want a vocational course over an academic one – a line supported by the Department for Education (DfE) Media blog bringing this back to the ‘often forgotten 50 per cent of young people who don’t go to university’. 

If you ‘go to’ my university, you could be on a foundation degree in horticulture or garden design, a registered nurse degree apprenticeship, or a degree in audio and music technology. 

We will continue to argue whether individual subjects or programmes are ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ , but the survey invites comment on two educational choices, ‘go to university’ or ‘not go to university’. If you ‘go to’ my university, you could be on a foundation degree in horticulture or garden design, a registered nurse degree apprenticeship, or a degree in audio and music technology.   

SMF kindly shared the survey data with HEPI. It does show a generational gap. For example, on the important question of where you would want your own child to go, 48% of 18-to-24 year olds are in the ‘go to university’ camp, this drops to 34% for each of the 25-34, 45-54 and 55-64 working age groups.  

The survey was run in 2019. It therefore pre-dates much of recent government policy and, of course, the pandemic. Time will tell if there is a major recalibration of the careers, jobs or ‘trades’ that people continue to do, but clearly people think that more education after school better equips you to do them. The survey posed a different question ‘Overall, how valuable, if at all, do you think each of the following are to be able to do a good job nowadays?’ The vocational qualification route was the clearly seen as valuable, with 83% agreeing. There’s a small number who think that that degrees are not at all useful for jobs, but an encouraging 60% thought a degree would be valuable.

This survey was asking people to imagine what next for students at 18. It avoids the complex questions about choices at 14 and 16.

One of the confusions about post-18 education is terminology. This survey was asking people to imagine what next for students at 18. It avoids the complex questions about choices at 14 and 16. We should presume the respondents were thinking of people who had been successful at Level 3 and were now ready to progress. The next great challenge is how to secure a successful Level 4/5 qualification that people will take. The survey found that 66% of respondents had heard of Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), 46% of Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHEs) but the survey did not ask about foundation degrees. Interestingly, of the Level 3 qualifications, 84% had heard of A levels (which is a bit like the surprise when not all the 100 people asked on the game show Pointless have heard of the most obvious answer) and, remembering this was before their launch, only 8% had heard of T-Levels.

The Government has launched Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) as a brand, with rules for acquiring the kitemark, but the awards will be the existing ones.  One way through the confusion about terminology is to focus on level. We need clarity about the options available at Level 4/5 both for larger qualifications, say of one or two year’s full time study, but also routes through part-time study, with more flexibility through credit accumulation. The Skills for Jobs White Paper is very clear about progression and that eventually the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will deliver a major transformation by funding that flexibility.

There are some regulatory issues, of course. The White Paper is also clear about the need for quality assurance and ties HTQs to Office for Students (OfS) registration for now. Michelle Donelan also says that she has been encouraging all parts of the higher education sector to take up Degree Apprenticeships. There are 420 higher education providers (HEPs) registered with the OfS, with different missions, profiles and recruitment catchments. Many of those providers, even many of the universities, will have most of their programmes falling inside that definition of ‘technical or practical qualification specific to a trade’. The providers who have degree awarding powers will have an important role to play working with the other providers, with new types of partnerships needed, avoiding pitting Further Education Colleges (FECs) against HEPs but respecting their different strengths.   

If 85% of people think that their 18 year-old children should progress to more education, then there will need to be plenty of provision around. The OfS registration process has shown that completely new provision, while welcome, can be both slow and expensive. Where cold spots are identified it may be more efficient for an existing university to offer the provision. As an example, Peterborough’s new higher education provider, which is committed to offering ‘technical or practical qualification specific to a trade’ linked to local skills needs, should be in place for 2022. It will be bigger and faster because it is part of an existing university, already working within the OfS regulatory framework.   

There are some more headlines waiting to be coined in the survey. Only 13% of the respondents disagreed with the statement: ‘University degrees give you the foot in the door to your best career’. Only 9% disagreed that ‘international students taking degrees in the UK is a great British export industry’. Even the question ‘To what extent do you support or oppose the target of making sure 50% of young people in the UK have a degree?’ got 42% support (36% oppose) – but after all, 85% of those responding wanted progression to more education for their imaginary 18 year-olds.

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  1. What is the orange/gold on the bar chart representing?

  2. Mike Ratcliffe says:

    The orange bar is ‘none of these’ – sorry it got cut off.

  3. Dawn Southgate says:


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