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