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



Now that term has well and truly started, we have been out and about this week at a variety of partner visits and meetings, while organising publication of the resources we have developed over the summer period.

Sue (Director) and Andrew (Deputy Director) travelled to City and Islington College for the first partner visit of the academic year. Andrew also visited Goldsmiths University of London to discuss future collaborative work with Linking London partner colleges.

Back in the office Andrew has been putting the finishing touches to our new Adviser Guide to Sports HE, which will be completed ready for partner distribution next month. The updated student guide for Access Learners applying to nursing, midwifery and allied health professions courses is due in the office any day now, and multiple copies will be sent out to Access tutors at partner colleges over the coming week.

Sue attended the steering group for one of our NNCO projects – Reaching East and Reaching London – at UEL, and has been busy finalising the 2016-17 Linking London Business Plan. Sue also attended the HE in London Management Group along with Emily (NNCO Project Officer).  Over the summer several new resources have been added to the HE in London website, including a Higher Education Activity Planner and three case study films which are designed to help advisers plan their outreach activities.

Emily has been orchestrating the introduction of the personal statement tool to our NNCO website HECAIL, which was trialled in a very successful pilot scheme last year. She has also been preparing for the NNCO Learner Journey event which is taking place on the 17th October. Places are still available for any interested practitioners, and as an NNCO event it is open to both partners and  non-partners! To book a place please click here.

Finally, congratulations are in order for Office Manager Stuart, as he got married at the weekend!  Stuart has been with Linking London from the very beginning, and I’m sure you will all join us in wishing him, and his new wife, well.

More news and updates from myself and the team next week.


Hello Readers

Though most of the headlines over the past week have been devoted to the Olympic gold-medal-rush (congratulations Team GB), hidden amongst the column inches devoted to sporting spectacle have been some education stories which could have huge implications for our sector. This week our blog unpacks some of the biggest education stories of the past seven days.

National Student Survey

The results of HEFCE’s 2016 National Student Survey were published last week, with 86% of undergraduates in the final year of Higher Education responding that they are satisfied with their university programme. Out of Linking London’s partners, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was within the top 20 institutions for student satisfaction, and UEL were named as having one of the largest increases in satisfaction year on year (up 5%).

Several Further Education Colleges achieved 100% student satisfaction for their HE provision. Many of Linking London’s FEC partners provide Higher Education qualifications, and we hope this success in the National Student Survey will shine a brighter light on the importance of the provision colleges offer for HE students. Our colleagues as the Association of Colleges were also thrilled, with David Corke, Director of Education Policy at the AoC, stating on the their site:

“The colleges that provide higher education work very hard to ensure they are providing a quality service to their students and the local community and it is gratifying to see that students themselves say they are pleased with the education they receive.”

Apprenticeship Levy Update

On Friday the government published guidance on how the new Apprenticeship Levy would operate. The update is available to read in full here. TES have also published a handy 9 point guide to the update and its implications for the sector. Although the report indicates the levy is still set to be introduced next April, FE Week has reported that the CBI’s director for employment and skills doubts the new system will be ready for successful delivery by the deadline.

Our NNCO website HECAIL contains a free guide to Degree and Higher Apprenticeships, while Linking London members can access the partner area of our website to find our other published resources on Apprenticeships.

A Level Results Day

As we all know, A Level results day is fast approaching this week, and many publications have featured stories telling students how to survive the day – whether their results are better or worse than expected.  The Independent’s ‘A-level results day: the 5 things students should not do’ could be useful for advisers who are trying to calm anxious students, and the Guardian has a feature dedicated to Clearing success stories which some may find helpful. For readers seeking a summary of UCAS Clearing and UCAS Extra, we have a guide available in the ‘After Application’ section of our NNCO website.

That’s all our headlines for this week, more news from us to come next Monday.


Hello Readers

The summer months are quiet ones for the education sector. The time when students and teachers alike flee the classroom to enjoy the sunshine (well, some of the time), and when we hunker down in our office to busily prepare resources and events schedules for the coming term.

So rather than repeat last week’s post, and reel off the extensive list of conferences, workshops and publications we are working on, I have decided to use this week’s post to examine the latest educational news, and how it ties in to the work of Linking London.

The Brexit Backlash

The majority of the Education sector voted to remain in the EU, but we were in the minority as the referendum results revealed. Much of the sector is still reeling, asking what Britain’s exit from the EU means for Higher Education.

Britain’s future in the Erasmus scheme has been thrown into doubt, with the head of the programme refusing to guarantee British participation beyond next year. We also heard this week that new Prime Minister Theresa May is considering placing heavier restrictions on student visas, allowing only the very best foreign students’ access to British Universities. Many of our partners have issued statements reassuring current EU applicants that they are still welcome, and that the immigration status of current students remains (as yet) unchanged.

HEI leaders from 24 EU countries have signed a statement acknowledging the imminent Brexit, but calling for collaboration to continue in spite of it:  “We as European university leaders wish to reaffirm our commitment to international cooperation and exchange in this turbulent time for Europe. We are strongest when we tackle issues collaboratively”.  These sentiments on the power of collaboration are shared by the Linking London team – through our collaborative partnership we aim to make our members stronger, and better prepared for the future of the sector.

The Future of FE

HE in FE is often overlooked, yet around 159,000 learners are studying HE at college.  Currently many FE practitioners fear the implications of the HE Bill, and are concerned that the Office for Students could price colleges out of the HE sector.  Many of our partner colleges provide HE for students. If they were no longer able to afford an HE offer this would be a serious blow to disadvantaged London students who rely upon their local provision.

Social Mobility

Finally this week there has been much discussion regarding the relationship between social mobility and education – a topic close to our hearts, as Linking London was founded to pursue improvements in student achievement, social mobility and social justice.

Alan Milburn, Social Mobility Commission Chairman, believes: “It will be impossible to make progress in improving social mobility until the educational attainment gap between less well-off and better-off children is closed.”

We welcome Mr Milburn’s comments on the importance of education to social mobility – Linking London operates on the belief that through education learners can overcome class barriers and realise their ambitions.

More news, updates and commentary next week.



Hello readers!

This week is the last we will be spending in Egmont House – the end of an era. Several rather large crates have appeared in the office, ready to transport our resources (and all important coffee stash) over to our new home in Tavistock Square.

Our NNCO evaluation has been completed and submitted to our external evaluators – London Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam University.  Emily, our NNCO officer, has been planning events for the autumn term alongside our Deputy Director Andrew, including more of the popular subject specific events. An end of project NNCO event will be held this December to celebrate its success.

I have been sending out multitudes of invitations to our partners and colleagues for the upcoming 10 year Linking London anniversary at Senate House! The RSVPs are rolling in, and the event is now only 2 months away (September 15th).



I have also been getting to grips with our EMSI Labour Market Information ‘Analyst’ tool. Our board requested a list of sample questions to illustrate how the data can be utilised, which I hope to have ready for partners shortly. In future we hope partners will pose questions for us to answer through the use of this detailed software.

Andrew has been continuing work on his Nursing, Midwifery& Allied Health Professions guide, and would like to thank Greenwich and Middlesex universities for their supporting comments for the publication.

HECAIL continues to be populated by us all, and we hope to publish a plethora of new content on the site shortly, included pieces on MOOCS, LMI, HE in FE, and Sandwich Degrees.

On a final note we are all incredibly jealous of our Director Sue this week, who has sent us these pictures of her Ireland holiday.












That’s it for this week; the next blog post will be from our new Tavistock Square offices.


Hello readers!

Apparently this week marks the start of the British Summer, but nobody appears to have notified the weather of this. Hopefully the past week has been a productive one for you, and you haven’t spent it hunched beneath your brollies!

Last Tuesday was our final HE in FE Practitioner Group Meeting of the year, and boasted a rather full agenda! For many months our partners have requested a presentation on Consumer Law within the Education sector, particularly in reference to the latest CMA publication. In our last session of the term we hosted Eversheds International Law Firm, who gave an informative and enlightening presentation on the legal matters at hand for the FE sector.  We also had presentations from our colleagues at HEFCE, and the AoC, and we provided an update on our HE in FE mapping project.

Sue (our Director) and Andrew (our Deputy Director) visited Haringey Sixth Form College, who, we are very pleased to announce, have asked to join our network. Sue also met with Yolande Burgess to discuss the past successful year of engagement with London Councils, and how to build upon this promising relationship in the following year.

Our work with HE in London continues, with last week featuring operational and management meetings, attended by both Sue and Emily (Linking London NNCO Officer). Although the funding for this finishes this year, we were keen to discuss ways of sustaining the successful project.

The NCOP Proposal deadline grows nearer by the day, and our bid writing group continue to hone our London Networks bid, ready for the 1st of July. Our summarised proposal and letters of support were sent to partners last Thursday.

On a final note, our Twitter following has officially doubled since the new year – thank you to all who follow us for daily news and updates. You will be pleased to hear baked goods were eaten in celebration.

Please subscribe to this blog by clicking ‘follow’ to receive email updates, and more news from the network will be posted next Monday. Have a great week!