The Crucial Role of the Access to HE Diploma in Improving Social Mobility for Adults

With the increasing focus on arresting the decline of mature learners in higher education (HE), not least from the Office for Students, it’s vitally important the sector recognises the key role Access to HE Diploma courses play in improving social mobility and transforming the lives of thousands of adult learners each year who progress on to HE. “Decline” doesn’t really adequately reflect what has happened since there has been a 53% fall in mature entrants to HE between 2009/10-2017/18, due in large part to tuition fee changes in 2012, which has affected part-time HE in particular. In contrast, numbers of Access to HE Diploma numbers have largely held up, albeit with a 3% decline in registrations since 2016.

Going back to basics, the Access to HE Diploma is designed for adults who have been identified as having the potential to achieve at HE-entry standard. They are aimed primarily at adults who may have few, or no, formal qualifications and are designed to provide both the skills and academic subject knowledge to progress to HE. They are offered in the main by further education (FE) and adult colleges and are typically studied over one academic year on a full-time basis. In the context of HE progression, in the 2018 UCAS cycle there were 29,080 UCAS applicants with an Access to HE Diploma, accounting for 5.7% of all applications. Focusing on the capital, London HEIs attract the largest number of Access students, with over 7,000 accepted applicants (7,195). Access students are more likely to stay in their local area to study. In 2017 77% of HE entrants progressed on to universities, or to HE in FE, in their local area.

When we look at the profile of students studying Access to HE Diplomas it’s clear that these qualifications play a vital role in improving social mobility for older learners.  While the number of younger learners starting Access courses has increased, the vast majority are over the age of 21 and most will have significant experience outside formal education before they join the Access to HE course. Drawing on statistics produced by the QAA, Access students entering HE in 2017 were more likely to be female (73%), be from an ethnic minority background (29%) and have a disability (19%). They are also far more likely, when compared with applicants on other level 3 qualifications, to live in a disadvantaged area. 23% of Access entrants to HE were from a disadvantaged neighbourhood, compared with 11% of entrants on other level 3 qualifications. When looking at London Access learners, using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) as a metric for disadvantage, over three quarters of London Access students were classified as living in the top 40% most deprived neighbourhoods: IDACI Q1 and Q2 in the period 2013-14.

Focusing on HE achievement, Access learners obtain similar numbers of 1st class honours degrees compared with learners who entered HE with other level 3 qualifications (25.6% v 26.4%). However, while Access learners are more likely to complete their HE qualification than other mature learners, 9.6% of entrants with an Access qualification were no longer in HE the following year. This is higher than the overall average of 6% of HE learners who drop out of HE. While there is a lack of research available to explain this disparity it is likely that for many, “life” gets in the way, in terms of financial and family pressures, for example. A more flexible HE model, allowing learners to step on and off, as well as gaining recognition for learning achieved to date would be of particular benefit to mature students. Interestingly, one of the recommendations of the Augur Review, which was recently published, was that HE institutions should develop more flexible learning to include interim qualifications for all students who are on an undergraduate degree.

While completing background research for this article I was struck by the proportion of Access learners who do not progress on to HE following their Access course. The recent OfS report Preparing for Degree Study, which focuses on and compares Access to HE Diplomas and Foundation Years, states that the proportion of students who progressed to a degree programme in the four years following an Access course was 62%. What happens to the other third who do not progress needs to be looked at in more detail, including why they have chosen (or were not able) to progress on to HE. It also suggests that providing outreach support which includes information and advice on making the transition to HE and the support available once there is important. The use of role models and alumni might also be useful in this context.

Here at Linking London we recognise the important role that Access to HE Diplomas play in improving the life chances of adults and are committed to working closely with our partners, including OCN London, to ensure that these learners are supported into and through HE and onto successful graduate outcomes. If you would like to find out more about our work in this area, including our well established Access to HE Diploma Practitioner Group, please contact us at


BTECs: Our Role in Supporting BTEC Progression and Their Value in Improving Social Mobility

In preparation for our third Linking London BTEC Practitioner Group meeting later this month I have been putting the finishing touches to a guide for HE Admissions staff to support them to make informed and fair offers to BTEC applicants, which will shortly be available for partners.

With the launch of the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below and the consultation underway, there has been much concern raised in the sector as to what the future holds, if any, for applied general qualifications, of which BTECs form the most significant number. This led me to reflect on our work here at Linking London to support both college and university partners to improve the clarity and certainty of progression of these learners into and through higher education. We originally started out as a HEFCE funded lifelong learning network charged with the responsibility of helping to level the playing field between A levels and vocational qualifications, in particular BTECs, to improve the opportunities for progression from these qualifications. In addition to raising awareness of BTEC qualifications, we worked closely with partners to develop progression agreements between FECs and HEIs to identify suitable HE pathways from a number of BTEC subject areas. During our time as a lifelong learning network over 70 agreements were brokered. As important were the relationships that were formed between college and university staff to address misconceptions and open up channels for ongoing communication.

While working in FE in a previous role it was clear to me that one of the challenges for college learners, as well as advisers, was that HE admissions requirements for BTEC applicants were often unclear and in some cases lacked fairness in comparison with A levels. Linking London supported several HE partners with funding to review their entry requirements for BTEC applicants across their institution and provided guidance on where improvements needed to be made drawing on the recommendations of the Schwartz Report on Fair Admissions to Higher Education. We have continued to support partners in this work and undertake regular mapping of admissions requirements which has highlighted the improvements made by HEIs in London in terms of making fair and meaningful offers.  We have also, as well as setting up a BTEC Practitioner Group (which brings together our college and university partners including Pearson), produced a number of resources aimed at both learners and their advisers and HE outreach staff.

Previously, Linking London have commissioned London college leaver data reports undertaken by the University of Greenwich which over a period of 9 years has tracked over a quarter of a million London college leavers into and through HE. What the data shows is that the number of college learners studying BTECs as well as progressing onto HE has increased substantially in the past 10 years. During the period our reports covered, 2005-14 BTEC level 3 college learners increased from approximately 5000 to nearly 150,000. On average, students holding BTEC qualifications come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than their A level counterparts (HEPI, 2017). Focusing on London College learners, BTEC students applying to HE are even more likely to come from disadvantaged and BME backgrounds – 76% of the BTEC level 3 college cohort (2013-14) in London were classified as living in an area of educational disadvantage using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI Q1 and Q2) and 64% of London college level 3 students in total were from BME backgrounds.

The increased number of BTEC learners entering HE has therefore played a significant role in widening access to and participation in HE over recent years.  While Applied General qualifications have come in for some criticism regarding their suitability in terms of preparation for and success in HE our research shows that the majority of BTEC learners that do progress achieve a HE qualification, albeit in lower numbers than their A level counterparts. This is in spite of the fact that BTEC learners are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and that HE curricula is in the main still geared toward A level learners.

Further, BTEC qualifications have recently been revised to better prepare learners for HE study, in part to address concerns raised by more selective institutions. While it’s early days it appears that some university courses that may not have previously accepted BTECs are prepared to offer places to students on the new BTEC level 3 qualifications, while others that previously may have asked for an additional A level in some instances have dropped this requirement. Interestingly, the fastest growing route into HE is those applicants with a BTEC/A level mix. HEIs seem particularly receptive to learners holding a mix of both vocational and academic qualifications – the best of both worlds you could argue, in the sense that these learners will be equipped with both academic as well as vocational skills and knowledge.

Here at Linking London, while we are committed to playing our part in helping to ensure that T levels in London are a success, we feel that their introduction shouldn’t be at the expense of BTECs.

Preparing for T levels

Last Thursday we held our second Linking London T levels event to explore progress to date in T levels development as well as exploring how we as a partnership can work together to help ensure T level learners are supported to progress onto a wide range of higher level learning opportunities.

The event provided an opportunity to briefly reflect on the chequered history of vocational reform in this country over the past thirty years. Those with long memories will remember that back in 1991 the conservative government of the time published the Education in the 21st Century White paper which heralded the introduction of both National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) as well as General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs). Further down the line Advanced Certificates of Vocational Education (AVCEs) were also introduced. The drivers for their introduction could have been written in the context of the introduction of T levels: “We will…establish a framework of vocational qualifications that are widely recognised and used, and that are relevant to the needs of the economy; promote equal esteem for academic and vocational qualifications.” Both GNVQs and AVCEs were discontinued in 2007. In 2008, 14-19 Diplomas were introduced to much fanfare. Linking London worked closely with our partners to raise awareness of the new qualification, focusing on the level 3 Advanced Diploma. We collaborated with our university partners to help identify suitable HE pathways, develop fair admissions processes and helped broker a number of progression agreements between colleges and universities. IAG resources were developed to support Advanced Diploma learners make informed choices post course and several activities were delivered directly to the learners themselves. As well as establishing an Advanced Diploma forum we worked with a number of key stakeholders including local authorities, UCAS and government ministers. While the 14-19 diplomas came to an end in 2013, we feel we learnt a number of valuable lessons which we feel will help us to assist our college and university partners in the context of progression of T level learners onto higher level learning.

Although it may feel a long way off for our HE partners, from September 2021 T level learners will be deciding their next steps post course and for those planning to apply to go on to higher education UCAS applications will be completed. There is much, however, that needs to be finalised before HEIs can make informed decisions on how they will respond to this new qualification. Final content for the first wave of T levels (construction, digital and education and childcare) starting in 2020, won’t be signed off by the DfE until early next year. Until this is made available it will be challenging for HEIs to make any informed decisions on how they will respond to the qualification in terms of appropriate HE pathways and admissions requirements. At present, we also have no further details from the DfE on what the proposed bridging provision, to enable learners to progress from T levels to more academic undergraduate degrees, will look like. Discussions between the DfE and UCAS are still ongoing regarding exactly how UCAS tariff points will be awarded, although we now know that they will be in line with 3 A Levels.

With the clock ticking, Linking London, building on the lessons learnt from the ill-fated 14-19 Diplomas, will be working closely with partners to help ensure that they are kept up to date with the latest T level developments and provide opportunities to work together to effectively prepare for their introduction.

Level 2 College Learners: Overlooked and Ignored

Every year, approximately 900,000 students aged 16 to 18 take level 3 courses, primarily A levels and vocational qualifications, including BTECs. A smaller group, around 170,000, take level 2 qualifications, predominately in vocational subjects. Most take their level 2 courses in general further education colleges, with a smaller number undertaken in sixth form colleges. Level 2 courses support students to progress onto employment and training, including apprenticeships or onto further study at level 3. Official data on both the characteristics of level 2 learners and their destinations post-level 2 is limited. As a result, they have been largely overshadowed by the better understood majority who progress directly onto level 3 study after completing GCSEs. While admittedly smaller in number, level 2 students then are often overlooked and less visible in terms of government policy priorities and widening participation initiatives.

Does this matter? I think it does for both social mobility and economic reasons and I feel that that more should be done in the context of widening participation initiatives and careers guidance to support these learners. For many, their choice in studying a level 2 qualification is made in less than ideal circumstances as most will have likely aspired to have progressed on to a level 3 course. Level 2 learners who did not achieve good passes in their GCSE results then may feel a sense of failure and have their self-belief and confidence dented. While detailed data is limited, a high proportion of these students, as outlined in recent Ofsted research into level 2 study programmes, are likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and disproportionate numbers will have special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), looked after or have left care. Levels of motivation and commitment as well as the academic ability of level 2 learners will tend to vary considerably in any particular class. When looking at progression from level 2 qualifications, less than two thirds typically (although this will likely vary considerably by course and provider),  progress on to level 3 and only a small minority of those that do not progress currently go on to an apprenticeship.

This would suggest that these learners would benefit from additional support. What we don’t have is any clear picture of what support, if any level 2 learners receive by way of interventions from either career professionals or from HE outreach activities. Anecdotally from my experience this is likely to be limited. While working with younger aged school children is, for example, encouraged by the Office for Students, I have seen no mention of working with this group of learners in their guidance and little in the way of HE outreach schemes which focus on this group. Hard pushed college careers advisers have their hands full working with level 3 learners and while I do know of a number of instances where level 2 learners receive support, this is challenging for careers staff already working, in many instances, with thousands of college level 3 students.

While many level 2 learners may prefer to go on to employment, we have a duty to ensure that these learners are making informed choices based on the full range of potential opportunities and if appropriate encouraged to aim high when making future plans, including the possibility of going on to higher level learning. What we do know is that current and future projections of skills needs of the UK economy highlight continued growth in professional and associate professional occupations which typically require higher level qualifications to enter. Current skills shortages in associate professional and technician, especially STEM, occupations are acute, due in part to the relatively low numbers of learners completing level 4 and 5 vocational and technical qualifications compared with other OECD countries. Professor Dave Phoenix in the HEPI  report Filling in the Biggest Skills Gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5, makes the case that the biggest cause of our levels 4 and 5 skills shortages in England is the shortfall of young learners progressing from lower levels – from 2-3 and from level 3 onwards. Fixing this pipeline of progression then it is argued is key in terms of meeting the demands of the economy.

Here at Linking London we have, through our BTEC and Access practitioner groups, discussed working with level 2 learners and as a result are planning small scale pilots with several of our college and university partners. What the conversations did raise is that there are examples of where colleges are working extremely hard to provide these learners with a positive experience and already delivering a number of innovative activities to support them to prepare for the next stage of their future. In the context of areas identified, where level 2 students could benefit from additional support, these included motivation to study, study skills and maths and English support and working with learners to improve their confidence and aspiration raising, in the context of specific subject areas. We are now in the process of planning several interventions at the colleges we are working with. We hope going forward that we can build on these pilots in future years to help make a real difference to learners at a critical juncture in their lives.

Degree Apprenticeships and Their Impact on Improving Social Mobility

January saw the release of the latest apprenticeship starts figures and the publication of the Degree Apprenticeships Up to Standard? report by the Higher Education Commission. Both publications have led to growing concerns that apprenticeships aren’t having the desired impact in terms of providing opportunities for young aspiring apprentices, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While the latest apprenticeship start figures show a 15% increase on the same period last year (August-October), when compared over a longer time frame this figure represents a decrease of 15.2% and 13.8% compared to this time in 2016/17 and 2015/16, before the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. It also shows that the number of those aged 25+ starting apprenticeships has increased by 43% this quarter while under-19 starts have declined by 2%. This is part of an ongoing trend which has seen starts among the youngest apprentices fall by 23% over the last four years – a higher proportion than any other age group.

When focusing on degree apprenticeships (DAs) the HE Commission report expresses concern in terms of social mobility about a about a lack of opportunities, particularly for young disadvantaged people, outside of large conurbations.  It also raises concerns about a “middle class grab” of degree apprenticeships.

What can be done then to improve the number of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, embarking on DAs? At the risk of stating the obvious we need more employers prepared to take on more young apprentices. Numbers of DAs, while growing, are still limited in number. Some larger employers have simply re-packaged their graduate schemes as DAs while others offer them to existing staff.  Our own mapping of externally advertised vacancies in Greater London indicates that numbers have yet to recover from pre-Levy introduction levels. The HE Commission report makes a number of recommendations to help increase the number of DAs, including removing barriers and encouraging employers, particularly SMEs to offer them. As highlighted in the report, one key aspect is that employers should be able to use the apprenticeship Levy more flexibly, to enable employers the opportunity to offer incremental learning opportunities at level 4 and above, leading onto a degree but with “stop off points” where desired. We also need to find ways to incentivise employers to take on young apprentices, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present, there are no requirements for employers to use a proportion of the Levy to recruit apprentices, as opposed to putting existing employees on apprenticeships, including DAs, as many have done so.

We also need a UCAS-style applications portal for apprenticeships, as has been talked about for several years. Our experience of mapping higher and degree apprenticeship vacancies in Greater London over the past 18 months and discussions with careers advisers in partner colleges has highlighted the challenges in finding vacancies, in the absence of a centralised source of information. (Interestingly, the Chief Executive of UCAS recently stated that the service needs more government funding to deliver an apprenticeship application portal). Would be apprentices, especially those form disadvantaged backgrounds, also need support, not only to track down vacancies, but also in preparing effectively for the selection process, which may include, in addition to the application form and/or CV, online tests, assessment centres, group and 1-1 interviews.

If we are to measure degree apprenticeships in terms of improving social mobility we need accurate, up to date and detailed data. As the HE Commission report highlights, there is a lack of demographic data on those who embark on degree apprenticeships. The latest OfS data, published last Autumn, only covers the period 2016/17, which makes drawing any firm conclusions at this stage on the impact degree apprenticeships have had on addressing skills shortages or in contributing to improving social mobility difficult.

Value for Money? Employer Perspectives on Graduate Recruitment

Value for money in terms of students studying in higher education is increasingly becoming one of the key debates in the sector. Over the past year we’ve had a National Audit Office study and the Office for Students (OfS) commissioned student research into the issue. Last week saw the government’s response to the Education Select Committee report: Value for Money in Higher Education, published in November, and of course, it forms a central part of the current post-18 education and funding review, as well as being one of the key strategic objectives of the OfS. The latest poll for the Times newspaper, the results of which were shared on the 2nd January, indicate that two thirds of adult respondents believe that university tuition fees of up to £9,250 a year provide poor value for money. What we actually mean by ‘value for money’ is another continuing debate, but in terms of students and graduates it mostly focuses on the quality of the course itself in terms of teaching and support as well as employment outcomes on graduation.

What we must not lose sight of in all this debate is what UK employers are actually telling us with regard to the graduate labour market and predicted higher level skills needs for the future. Back in November, the CBI and Pearson published their 10th Annual Education and Skills report, Educating for the Modern World. As always, it’s a fascinating and important read and in terms of the graduate labour market paints a refreshingly positive picture in the main.  The report, which  summarises the responses of over 28,000 UK businesses, focusing on their perceptions of the education system, highlights that nearly nine in ten (87%) of businesses that employ graduates have maintained or increased their levels of graduate recruitment over the past year. Only 13% of businesses have cut back on graduate recruitment while more than one in five (28%) increased their graduate intakes.  The report states that this represents a marked rise in the positive balance of greater graduate recruitment compared with 2017 and for the sixth consecutive year, more businesses have expanded their graduate intakes than have cut back on graduate recruitment, cumulatively raising the number of graduate openings. Looking to the future, businesses expect to have more job openings for people at every skill level over the next three to five years. The biggest anticipated area of growth is at the higher end of the skills spectrum, with 79% of businesses expecting to grow their number of higher skilled employees.

With concerns raised in the sector about grade inflation, it is encouraging to see that nearly four in five businesses (79%) gave a positive reply when asked whether they still consider a 2:1 undergraduate degree to be a good measure of academic ability. What these reports clearly show time and again, however, is that employer’s value graduates aptitudes and attitudes to work as some of the most important factors when recruiting candidates and in fact topped the list of key factors in the 2017 CBI/Pearson report (followed by degree result and degree subject respectively). Of concern is that in the same report one third of employers cited their dissatisfaction with graduates attitudes and behaviours, including self-management and resilience. This would suggest that the growing emphasis on improving these attitudes and behaviours should not just be a priority for schools and colleges but for the HE sector as well. A similar level of dissatisfaction was also cited in terms of the relevance of graduate applicants work experience, which reinforces the message that students need to be equipped with both an HE qualification and, wherever possible, relevant experience of the world of work. With Brexit adding to growing fears that current skills shortages, particularly at higher levels, will only increase further, it would seem that at least in the next few years the outlook is in the main a positive one for graduates, especially those with the right behaviours, attitudes and experience.

Careers Guidance in the Spotlight

It’s been a very busy year in terms of careers policy developments and guidance and it feels, not before time, that the spotlight is definitely on careers and its importance in terms of improving social mobility and addressing the needs of the UK workforce. This time last year, the long awaited government Careers Strategy came out, which outlined the government’s plan for raising the quality of careers provision in England, followed in January by further guidance aimed specifically at the schools sector. In February this year it was the turn of colleges with the release of the government’s Careers Guidance: Guidance for further education colleges and Sixth Form Colleges document, which was updated in October, with further guidance on how colleges can meet the Gatsby benchmarks. In terms of guidance on how colleges can meet the requirements, last month the Careers and Enterprise Company published the research paper What Works in Careers Provision in Colleges and a Gatsby Benchmark Toolkit for Colleges, which feature a number of our college partners as case studies of good careers practice, including Lambeth College, CONEL and the South Thames Colleges Group.

Few in the careers profession will argue with plans to raise the status of careers guidance or the rather ambitious goal, set out in the Government’s Careers strategy, to make it world class. Using the 8 Gatsby benchmarks, developed by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, to set a standard of excellence in careers guidance have also been well received by careers professionals.  Where there has been criticism of the government’s plans, it has been that at present there are no additional funds provided to enable schools and colleges help meet the requirements, which include an appointed careers leader in every institution. There are capacity issues in terms of meeting some of the benchmarks, specifically benchmarks 6, experiences of workplaces and benchmark 8, personal guidance.  Focusing on the latter, the strategy states every learner should have at least one such interview by the end of their study programme. A number of our FE college partners have several thousand 16-18 students studying a wide range of courses. Even with colleges who have several qualified careers advisers this is an enormous task. If we make the assumption that a guidance interview would last approximately 30 minutes it doesn’t need a mathematician to work out that this isn’t realistic unless further government funding is made available.

I’ve highlighted issues with meeting benchmarks 6 and 8 on several occasions with the Careers and Enterprise Company, most recently when asked to review a draft of the Gatsby Benchmark Toolkit for Colleges. At present there is little in the way of guidance about how colleges with considerable numbers of 16-18 year olds can work towards meeting these benchmark requirements. We need, in the absence of additional resource, to think innovatively about how we go about it and more clarity as well as  guidance from the CEC in how to square this circle. For example, does e-advice count or short 10-15 minute interventions? Does guidance from non-level 6 advisers count – i.e. coaches, tutors? What do we actually mean then when we talk about careers guidance interviews and how are they defined?

Looking ahead, Linking London will continue to keep partners up to date with the latest developments as well as providing opportunities to explore how to address issues and share good practice at future events and practitioner group meetings. This will include continuing to develop closer links with the Careers and Enterprise Company as well as City Hall, who have recently released the Mayor of London’s Careers for London Action Plan. This ambitious plan sets out the Mayor’s vision for careers provision in London, what City Hall will do to help realise this vision and the vital role that other organisations, including employers, schools, colleges and universities, but also government need to play.  We will be inviting both the CEC and representatives from City Hall to input at future events in the New Year and will be working closely with our college and HE partners to work collaboratively to help meet the benchmarks and ensure our college learners receive high quality careers advice and guidance.

Andrew Jones, Director, Linking London

Level 4 and 5 Education: The poor relation?

As you will have noticed technical education is very much at the forefront of policy debate. For example, the Industrial Strategy has as its focus addressing acute skills shortages by developing a world class technical education offer, we have the arrival of T-levels in 2020, Institutes of Technology in the process of being set up and the ongoing drive to develop higher and degree level apprenticeship opportunities.  As part of the Post 18 review of education and funding a review of Level 4-5 education is also currently underway.

This led to me reflect on my time working with students planning their futures post college. While level 4 and 5 qualifications were promoted alongside more traditional HE pathways, there was a limited and over time declining interest, particularly amongst younger learners, in these often overlooked qualifications. This one small example is mirrored nationally in terms of a declining take up of level 4 and 5 qualifications.  Why is this case then and does it actually matter are two questions I will return to in this article.

Firstly, it’s worth spending a moment clarifying what are level 4 and 5 qualifications. Put simply, they are qualifications above level 3, i.e.  A Levels, Access and BTEC Nationals and below a full undergraduate degree. They include Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs/HNDs), Certificates and Diplomas of Higher Education (Cert and Dip HEs) and Foundation Degrees (FDs). They also include a range of level 4 and 5 professional qualifications and are equivalent to the first 2 years of an undergraduate degree. Just over a half are offered by further education colleges, approximately a third by universities and the rest by other organisations including private providers. The majority of these learners are aged over 25 and almost half study part time. There are approximately 216,000 learners across universities and further education providers at levels 4-5.

Focusing on HNDs/HNCs, FDs and Cert and Dip HEs, there has been a steady decline in recent years of student enrolments onto these qualifications. Around 7% of all students between ages 18-65 are studying at level 4-5 and the UK fare poorly in comparison to many other countries. According to OECD data the UK are placed 16th out of 20 countries.

There are a number of factors I believe that have contributed to the lack of take up of these qualifications. The decline in part-time and mature learners has significantly impacted on these qualifications as they traditionally attract these learners, as has the increasing competition in the HE sector for students, particularly following the removal of the student number cap. The rapid growth in foundation years offered by universities, I suspect, is also a factor here. Funding incentives encourage the sector to offer three year full time undergraduate degrees and the focus of widening participation policy and delivery still in the main target younger applicants. A key issue is also that level 4 and 5 qualifications are often poorly understood, not only by prospective students but, until more recently, by government policy makers as well. Younger students in particular often view them as either somehow inferior to an undergraduate degree or at best, to be used as a stepping stone if all else fails, rather than as a stand-alone qualification worth studying in its own right.

Does any of this actually matter then? I think it clearly does on a number of counts. Brexit will only exacerbate the skills shortages that already exist in associate professional and technician occupations, jobs that typically require a level 4-5 qualification to enter and progress in. In addition, these occupations have an ageing workforce, leading to high levels of replacement demand. The impact of new technologies will also mean that more and more of the existing workforce will need to learn new skills and in some cases retrain.

In terms of improving social mobility these qualifications typically attract greater numbers of learners from under-represented backgrounds and increasing the numbers taking them will help to address the decline in mature HE learners.  Importantly these qualifications, if effectively promoted, are a potential HE pathway that will suit a number of younger learners who are not interested in the more traditional 3 year full time degree model.

So what can be done to ensure that level 4 and 5 qualifications not only survive but thrive? Improving both their visibility and perceived value would be a good starting point.

In terms of attracting potential learners to consider these qualifications there is much work to do both to raise their visibility and their value to individuals, as well as employers and the economy as a whole.  It doesn’t help that there appears to be no clear consensus as to what we actually mean by technical, professional and vocational education and how they relate to and at times overlap with academic education. Similarly, we need more clarity regarding what we mean by technical occupations.  More needs to be done then to both explain the wide variety of job roles and opportunities as well as provide a clear overview of progression pathways into these occupations.  We need better and accessible Labour Market Intelligence (LMI) and earnings data to evidence the skills shortages, opportunities and the added value in terms of earnings in undertaking level 4-5 qualifications, on both a regional as well as national basis. This lack of clarity presents challenges when providing information, advice and guidance (IAG) which is critical, as has been highlighted in several reports on increasing the take up of these qualifications. But IAG is only as good as the quality of information, including job roles, occupations and pathways, as well as LMI, available to support staff in an advisory role.

In short I think there is a lack of a clear line of sight from level 4-5 onwards. What’s in it for a student?  What careers can they progress on to and if they want to “top up” to a level 6 qualification in the future, where can they go, what can they top up to and how much will it cost?

We also need evidence that employers are actually asking for applicants to be qualified to these levels and not defaulting to asking for graduate applicants. In some sectors i.e. engineering, level 4-5 qualifications are highly valued. Where there isn’t a traditional or longstanding  level 4-5 qualification recognised by the sector and clear information available to inform them of the potential value of level 4-5 qualifications, employers are likely to focus their recruitment towards more established routes, including school and college leavers and graduates.

In terms of the perceived value of level 4-5 qualifications if we are serious about promoting growth it doesn’t help that they are referred to as sub-degree level, nor does it help while it continues to be designated as different from HE developed by universities.

The HEPI report Filling in the Biggest Skills Gap authored by Dave Phoenix, Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University, identifies the lack of a pipeline of level 2-3 and 3 onwards, due to the very large numbers of learners who fail to achieve even level 2 qualifications, as a crucial issue in addressing the lack of take up. This report also highlights that there are currently approximately 20 million working age adults without qualifications at level 4 or above. By comparison there are only 750,000 18 year olds in the entire population.  Perhaps we should focus a bit less on trying to ensure as many 18 year olds as possible progress on to HE and start to address the low level of skills in the current workforce, via part time and flexible learning.  After all it’s not as if at age 18 it’s now or never in terms of progressing on to higher level learning…

Here at Linking London we are exploring with partners level 4 and 5 developments, with a particular focus on HNDs and HNCs, at our HE in FE and BTEC practitioner meetings in November. This will include updates on the latest news as well as exploring how we raise the profile of these qualifications as a potential HE route to level 3 learners in partner colleges. Please view our events page on our website for more details.

Andrew Jones, Director, Linking London

Farewell NNCO, Hello NCOP

Hello Readers,

As everyone is beginning to wrap up for the year saying goodbye to 2016 and looking forward to all that may be ahead in 2017, Linking London is no exception. Our National Network of Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) will be coming to an end at the end of this year and we are now starting to look ahead and plan all the work Linking London will be doing in the New Year including our new project under the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP). In this blog post we look back, take stock and highlight some of the key outputs from our NNCO.

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Our NNCO has been one part of Linking London’s work over the last two years and has enabled us to work collaboratively with partners to support all colleges in London. Providing advisers with information, advice and guidance as they work with their level 3 students and focus on supporting progression to higher level learning.

Over the course of the NNCO project, Linking London has been able to provide workshops and information sessions for advisers, personal statement support and checking for learners, a website dedicated to London advisers, plus resource booklets and guides. We have also been working with our university and college partners who have developed innovative and collaborative projects funded by their formula funding associated with the NNCO.

So here we are in December 2016, with only a few more days to go before the Linking London office closes for the Christmas period and we end the NNCO project … but we didn’t want to go before we highlighted some of the useful tools, information and resources that have come out of the NNCO work that will be available to you post December 2016…so here we go:

  • HECAIL (Higher Education College Advisers in London) Adviser website: your one-stop shop for advice and guidance to help you support college learners as they explore their options, apply and progress to higher level learning.
  • UCAS Personal Statement Tool: supporting level 3 college learners who are applying through UCAS
  • Adviser Events: you can access the event reports and presentations from all the NNCO adviser events we ran
  • Printed Resources: here you will find all the NNCO resources we have developed including, a good practice guide to admissions, four subject-specific adviser guides, and HE in FE London mapping.

And finally here are a few examples of the collaborative project work that has come from our partners:

  • Reaching East Reaching London Dashboard map: an online tool containing information about schools and colleges in London, learner profile data, achievement data and outreach data.
  • GetAHEAD: an online personal development planning tool aimed at adults in the workplace who are interested in study at a higher level.

All that remains for us to say is we hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and we look forward to working with many of you in 2017. The Linking London team will be blogging again in the New Year.


Hello readers

This will be my final blog entry as Linking London’s Support Officer! As of Monday I will be moving on to pastures new. But never fear! The team will blog fortnightly in my absence, until a new officer is hired to take of the mantle of our weekly update within the blogosphere.

Pearson's David MacKay at our BTEC Meeting

Pearson’s David MacKay at our BTEC Meeting

This week we held our first BTEC Practitioner meeting of the academic year, which featured presentations from Brunel,  Birkbeck’s outreach team, and Pearson UK. In addition we were delighted to welcome Hugh Joslin from the University of Greenwich, who presented some of the key findings of Linking London’s latest data report on the progression of college learners to HE, which provides data up to the academic year 2014-2015.

Did you know that:

  • 76% of the BTEC cohort in London are classified as living in an area of educational disadvantage
  • When tuition fees rose for the 2011-2012 cohort, London college learner progression fell from 58% to 45%
  • Students from the most deprived areas of London progress at a higher rate than students from our most affluent areas

Hugh will be presenting the findings of the data report after our next Board Meeting on 7th December- lunch will be provided for attendees.

On Wednesday Director Sue and Project Officer Emily attended HEFCE’s event: ‘Widening participation together: Achievements of National Networks for Collaborative Outreach’ at Prospero House. The event showcased the key achievements of the NNCO scheme, celebrating successful projects and exploring how we can sustain collaborative working going forward.

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Emily has been preparing for our own NNCO End of Project event, which will be held on 5th December, and will feature partner presentations from (among others) UEL and GSM London . We will also be launching our 4 NNCO Subject Specific guides at this event, which examine entry requirements, career prospects and course provisions for Art & Design, Business, Computing and Psychology.

Emily and Andrew continue to provide Personal Statement support to learners through both workshops and our HECAIL personal statement portal.

Andrew and I answered our third partner LMI query using our EMSI analyst tool, helping Middlesex University investigate areas of London industry and job growth.

On a final note I would like to say a HUGE thank you to all our partners for their support during my time at Linking London. Thank you for reading my blogs, tweets and news updates over the past year.

My biggest thanks go to Sue, Andrew, Emily and Stuart, who work tirelessly to fight for social mobility through education, and have been the best team I could hope to work with.

More from the team in 2 weeks. Goodbye all, and good luck for the future.