Taking ‘no man’s land’

Neither FE nor HE has ever truly made higher-level technical education its own – and now the two sectors are fighting over it

Stephen Exley

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It is the “no man’s land” of education; the oft-ignored and little understood space between level 3 and level 6. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we’re talking about “post-secondary, sub-tertiary qualifications”; in mainstream parlance, it’s everything that lies between A levels and university degrees.

It includes HNCs, HNDs, foundation degrees and higher apprenticeships. And, crucially, it occupies the grey area bordering further and higher education. It is delivered in both, but owned by neither.

Now the Department for Education has announced a review of higher-level technical education, focusing on how level 4 and 5 qualifications “can better address the needs of learners and employers”.

The subtext couldn’t be clearer: at the moment, they don’t. A key reason is neither universities nor colleges have made them their own. There are pockets of good practice in both, but consistent excellence can be found in neither. As a 2015 Higher Education Policy Institute report pointed out, this area is crying out for a “well-defined set of institutions whose core mission is based around technical and professional qualifications”.

As our investigation shows, universities are testing the boundaries when it comes to traditional FE territory, and many have targeted level 4 and 5 as their next great expansion. If colleges want to head off these well-monied challengers at the pass, they will need to act quickly and decisively.


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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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