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'Troubling fall in higher technical qualifications needs investigating'

David Harbourne, director of policy and research for the Edge Foundation, writes:

Employers are crying out for people with high-level technical skills. We have growing skills shortages in many sectors of the economy, from agriculture to engineering and from care to construction.

When the UK Commission for Employment and Skills surveyed employers in 2013, many were found to be struggling to recruit associate professionals and technicians – people who need high level skills and knowledge, but not necessarily a full degree. Manufacturers in particular reported significant shortages in highly skilled associate professional roles, but they were by no means alone.

It is therefore very troubling to learn that there has been yet another fall in the number of people completing technical and professional qualifications such as Higher National Diplomas, included in the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s category of “other undergraduate” qualifications.

Some subjects have been hit really hard. Looking at trends in England over the last four years, “other undergraduate” qualifications have fallen by 23 per cent in engineering and technology, 27 per cent in business and admin, and 28 per cent in subjects allied to medicine. Computer science has fared even worse, with a fall of 44 per cent since 2009/10. Qualifications in architecture, building and planning – the construction sector – have declined by 52 per cent.

It would be great to think that this is merely a blip. But it isn’t.

HESA figures on student enrolments in 2013/14 show that in the UK as a whole, 51,895 people started Foundation Degrees in the last academic year, while 174,170 people started “other undergraduate” programmes. In 2009/10, the equivalent figures were 84,600 and 408,625 respectively. That translates into reductions of 39 per cent and 57 per cent.

There are two main reasons for this. For one thing, rules on tuition fees make it really hard for part-time students to enrol in the first place. This is a huge problem which surely deserves to be fixed as soon as possible.

Second, universities seem to be happy to put all their eggs in one basket – full three year degrees. I looked at a few university websites and searched for courses using various key words. At one university, I found just one result when I searched for HNDs: Business and Management. And in small print underneath the course title, the words “This course is no longer recruiting”.

Some will say the solution lies in the apprenticeship programme. And to some extent, yes it will. However, there were only around 18,000 people on higher apprenticeship programmes at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, so we have a long way to go to fill the gaping hole in current provision.

A couple of months ago, the OECD published “Skills Beyond School”, a review of post-secondary education and training across the world. It revealed that in this country, fewer than 10 per cent of people aged 20-45 have qualifications such as Higher National Diplomas and Foundation Degrees, compared with 20 per cent in Austria and 33 per cent in Canada.

We really need these qualifications. We really need these skills. And the truth is, we’ve known it for a very long time. In fact, it was at the heart of Lord Dearing’s 1997 report on higher education, which said, “As to the demand for more people with advanced technical training, we agree that this is an area of national need. We believe that much of the further growth of higher education, at least in the short term, should be in the Higher National Certificate, the Higher National Diploma and other analogous awards.”

The government didn’t listen then, and it’s not listening now.

Getting people to Level 4+ should be a central ambition for the next government. We have to make sure tuition fees and income-contingent loans don’t prevent people taking up great courses, and we have to give further education the freedom to get on and deliver high-quality programmes in partnership with local, regional and national employers.

As champion for technical, practical and vocational learning, the Edge Foundation will be writing to the chair of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Adrian Bailey, MP, to call for an immediate investigation into the provision of sub-degree courses by UK higher education providers.

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