Education secretary Damian Hinds has announced plans to rebadge and quality approve level 4 and 5 qualifications to help boost their popularity.
The qualifications, which sit between A levels and degrees and include CertHE and DipHE and foundation degrees, will be rebadged as higher technical qualifications to try to attract more students to study them.
According to the government, the level 4 and 5 review will complement the post-18 review to ensure the system is joined up, accessible to all and encourages the development of the skills the country needs.
Only around one in 10 adults in England currently hold a level 4 or 5 qualification – compared to one in five adults in Germany, where productivity is 25 per cent higher. Of the 4,000 qualifications offered at level 4 and 5 in England, over 40 per have 5 students or even fewer on them.
Background: What are level 4 and 5 qualifications?
According to recent research, students who gain these qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects can earn up to £5,000 more a year than people with degrees from many universities.
The government is, therefore, planning to review level 4 and 5 qualifications to ensure they are of a high-quality and lead to well-paid jobs – and awarding a new quality mark for all approved higher technical qualifications so students and employers can be confident courses provide the skills they need.
According to the government, it also wants to ensure that approved higher technical qualifications are only available with access to student finance at high-quality further and higher education providers.
A new public campaign working alongside employers and careers advisers to showcase the benefits and the wide range of career opportunities that studying a higher technical qualification can open up.
Damian 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.
“That needs to change. To help that change we need to make sure these courses are high quality, lead to good jobs and that people know about them. We can’t legislate for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes, but 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.”
Transforming technical and vocational education
Today’s plans build on the action already underway to transform technical and vocational education, including the introduction of new T levels from 2020 – technical alternatives to A levels. According to the government, higher technical qualifications will provide a natural progression route for young people taking new T levels from 2020, enabling them to take the next step up and gain higher technical skills in key subjects like STEM.
The government is also reviewing post-16 qualifications at Level 3 and below to make sure that all qualifications taken by students are high quality and lead to employment or further study.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: “We have been pleased to work with the government on these proposals from an early stage, sharing evidence and insights on the motivations, experience and outcomes of students in a less heralded part of higher education. There is a pressing need to develop more diverse routes through post-18 education. This is important to improve choice for students – particularly those who want to study in their local area or alongside work, who are often the most disadvantaged. These qualifications may also prove a key piece in the jigsaw for local and national prosperity, given many employers’ urgent need for higher-level technical skills.”
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “We’re pleased that the DfE is consulting on how to improve higher technical education though we’re nervous that the focus on reforming qualifications and adjusting regulations could divert attention from the post-18 review recommendations about capital funding, maintenance support for students taking level 4 qualifications and removing the ELQ rules.
"The Institute for Apprenticeships and Office for Students will both need to raise their game to take on the tasks set out in the consultation. College leaders are nevertheless keen to work with government on the bigger prize which is a post 18 education system that meets the needs of individuals and the country as a whole," he added.
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said: "With take up lower than in many other countries, the government is right to focus on level 4 and 5 qualifications as a key way to increase our skills base. Ensuring people know how these qualifications can help their career aspirations and ensuring they are all of the highest quality can be positive first steps.
"But to make a difference we need a clear plan for how level 4 and 5 qualifications will work with T levels and apprenticeships to provide clear progression routes, investment to support collaboration between further and higher education and with employers, and to deliver the Augar Review’s recommendations of maintenance support to ensure people can access these opportunities."