The government is planning a massive overhaul of qualifications that sit between A-Levels and university degrees – levels 4 and 5 in the United Kingdom’s qualification framework – as part of a plan to diversify the range of academic and professional opportunities available to school leavers.
Various vocational diplomas, certificates and apprenticeships re-packaged as more detailed and industry-led higher technical qualifications (HTQs) will help, according to the education secretary Damian Hinds, to offer more opportunities to young adults, and go some way towards plugging key skills gaps, particularly those relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.
While the government cannot necessarily legislate for a “parity of esteem between academic and technical routes”, Hinds said in a statement, he hopes that in investing in quality control and the visibility of HTQs will encourage their uptake.
The UK’s workforce is lagging, internationally, in terms of technical qualifications. Despite a report from the OECD, “Skills beyond School”, showing that technical qualifcations can lead to higher salaries and provide the skills most in demand in the future job market, only around ten per cent of people in the UK hold them. And of the roughly 4,000 level 4 and 5 courses on offer in the UK, an audit conducted by the Department for Education found that over 40 per cent of these only have five students or fewer enrolled.
Hinds said: “Employers across the country are crying out for more computer programmers, engineers, electricians and technicians in fields from advanced manufacturing to healthcare. But the evidence shows that despite these qualifications putting people in prime position to take advantage of that demand and the opportunities for better wages and better prospects – not enough people know about them.” He added: “We can make sure the options out there are clear and high-quality so students and employers know and trust that they will give them the skills they need.”
Following a consultation by the DfE which will draw expertise and take recommendations from employers across several industries between now and the end of September, it is intended that HTQs will be in place by 2022. This is with a view to being available to the first cohort of T-Level students who will have just finished their level 3 qualifications. T-Levels, vocational courses that are an alternative to A-Levels, are due to start from 2020 and are also part of the wider government aim to expand technical education.
HTQs will be offered at universities, further education colleges and national colleges – such as the London South Bank University and the National College for Nuclear. The government’s network of Institutes of Technology – partnerships between universities, FE colleges and employers – will also specialise in providing on-the-job training required for STEM subjects such as engineering.
Hinds told the Guardian that people in the UK would do well to be more open-minded about technical education and challenge some of the lingering “snobbery” attached to vocational training, which he put down to a “mixture of low awareness and complexity in the market” as well as cultural attitudes.
“Fundamentally,” Hinds said, “I do think in public policy terms, in parliament, in the media, in general, there is a danger we do talk about technical and vocational education in terms of other people’s children, which is something you don’t get in Germany. If you look at the UK internationally, we aren’t short of people doing degrees, compared with other leading nations, but we are short of people doing these kinds of high-level qualifications.”