Technical education at risk of ‘nationalisation’

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
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Awarding bodies say they are “enormously concerned” about government plans to force them to relinquish copyright for their post-16 technical qualifications – a move they believe could lead to rising costs for providers.

According to the Technical and Further Education Bill, currently going through Parliament, copyright for qualifications would be transferred to the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

Exam board official Geoffrey Holden said the move effectively amounted to the “nationalisation of technical education”. And the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) told TES it was seeking legal advice over the plans.

The changes would have serious implications for awarding bodies and could even lead to some deciding to stop offering technical qualifications altogether, FAB chief executive Stephen Wright added.

‘No chance’ for smaller bodies

Moves to overhaul the structure of technical education were unveiled in the Post-16 Skills Plan, published in July. The document revealed that each qualification at levels 2 and 3 would be awarded by a single awarding body or consortium “following an open competition”, rather than awarding bodies competing with each other in an open market as they do now.

In July, a senior exam board source told TES that the plans would mean smaller awarding bodies were “just not going to have a chance”.

The Technical and Further Education Bill allows for the expansion of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s remit in line with the Post-16 Skills Plan, giving the body a greater role in overseeing the development of a structure for technical education (see box, below).

'I am not sure the full implications have been understood'

The schedule to the bill, currently going through the committee stage in the House of Commons, states that not only would the institute be responsible for approving technical education qualifications developed by awarding bodies, but the copyright for any approved qualifications would also be transferred to it. The institute would then be able to assign or grant a licence for a third party to deliver these qualifications.

The education secretary would also be handed the power to issue technical education certificates, as well as the right to charge a fee for issuing these or supplying a copy.

Mr Holden, senior policy adviser at City & Guilds, argues that the plans “would result in the de facto nationalisation of technical education in England”.

Writing in today’s TES, he adds that research had shown “a monopoly or franchising outcome would more likely increase costs, while decreasing innovation and raising the chance of system failure” (see “We need more choice for learners, not less”).

Content is ‘what we do’

“We have enormous concerns,” agreed FAB’s Mr Wright. “For awarding organisations, that is what they trade on: content. It is at the heart of what they do.”

He added that having to give their intellectual property over to the institute would force awarding organisations to either charge providers significantly higher fees or drop out of the market altogether.

“[The institute] could go to a competitor and pass on all the work we have done,” he said. “That is exactly what will happen.

“We are taking legal advice on it, but at the moment we are working with the Department for Education and we are contributing to this at the committee stages [of the bill passing through Parliament]. I am not sure the full implications of it have been understood.”

Charlotte Bosworth, director of skills and employment at awarding body OCR, said: “Over the last 150 years, we have developed and refined the capacity and expertise to produce and award qualifications fairly and reliably on a national and international scale.

“We would have to think very hard before agreeing to relinquish copyright of any of our qualifications to a third party and be confident that the best interests of future students would be safeguarded in the process.”

Duplication of fees

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that any increase in costs for providers would be a concern.

“Any imposition of fees must be carefully considered and they definitely shouldn’t be any larger than what is being currently charged for apprenticeship certificates,” he added. “We also don’t want to see duplication of the fees charged by awarding organisations in respect of non-apprenticeship qualifications.”

A DfE spokesperson said the reform of technical qualifications would “ensure they meet the demands of employers and help boost our economy”.

“As the content of the qualifications will largely be determined through the institute, it is entirely appropriate that copyright for relevant course documents should rest with it,” they added. “Close engagement with employers will ensure that qualifications can continue to meet the changing requirements of particular occupations.”

@JBelgutay

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