In October 2017 the UK’s Department for Education began a wholescale review (the Review) of Level 4 and 5 Education in England.
The purpose of this review was to explore the potential of an educational landscape which can be a life-changing choice for an individual, and which has been dubbed Higher Technical Education (HTE). HTE is at Levels 4 and 5 (equivalent to the first two years of an UK honours degree) and is often aligned to technical and professional outcomes.
Pearson have long invested in this space in the form of the Higher National Certificates (HNC) at Level 4, and Higher National Diplomas (HND) at Level 5 - otherwise known as the Higher Nationals.
What is Higher Technical Education?
The Review looked in detail at the Level 4 and 5 space, via numerous pieces of research and consultation. The Review noted the great diversity of qualifications and educational organisations in the market at levels 4 and 5, the diverse nature of the student population, with the average age of a student at 30, and over half of all higher technical students studying on a part-time basis. Low uptake of this level of education in England was a key finding, despite there being substantial employer demand for higher technical skills, which are not currently being met. The recommendations from the Review were published in 2020 and are designed to contribute to both the quality of HTE qualifications and their delivery, and awareness of HTE as a valuable higher education choice, and therefore drive demand and participation.
At Pearson, we agree that there is a need and opportunity for more young people and adults to be undertaking HTE in future. We know that there are skills gaps at levels 4 and 5 which need to be met to ensure that national productivity is maintained and driven. The 2019 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey of employers, between them employing over 3 million people, concluded that ‘increased productivity can be achieved through addressing higher technical level skills gaps. To help achieve this, government and universities must work together to promote the value of HNCs and HNDs to employers and potential students.’
HTE can be very beneficial for students who undertake it. The Centre for Vocational Education Research published a paper which shows that students studying HTE qualifications in scientific and technical sectors, like engineering, can earn more each year than people with a university degree. To meet the HTE opportunity for both students and the economy, HTE needs to be available to as broad a group as possible – level 4 and 5 education can be used for both upskilling and retraining, and also to broaden choice for young people who are choosing what they want to do post level 3 study.
The BTEC Student of the Year for 2019, Christopher Meredith, is a great example of what HTE can do for students. Chris is an HND Civil Engineering student at Leeds College of Building.
He returned to college to study and now communicates with project teams all around the world, and is instrumental in solving complex civil engineering problems for Jacobs Engineering.
Chris gained the Institution of Civil Engineer’s Quest Technician Scholarship – awarded to Apprentices of only the highest calibre. He is an ambassador for STEM and for the college, going out to local schools to talk about the college progression opportunities available to students.
Designing high-quality HTE
One of the key recommendations from the DfE Review is that qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 should be submitted for approval as Higher Technical Qualifications. The approvals process is led by the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (the Institute), with employer review a central feature of the approvals process. Once approved, qualifications will be designated as Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) and may be eligible for increased funding.
The best HTE is designed with employer input and employment outcomes. We have long recognised this as a fundamental piece of the puzzle in designing world-class HTE, working with employers and professional bodies in the design and approval of the Higher Nationals. We do this to ensure that Higher Nationals support students’ progression to employment and professional recognition.
Some of our key partners in this space include Amazon Web Services, IBM, BMW, Institute of Engineering and Technology, CS Education Group (led by Newport Water Fab Ltd) and the Chartered Institute of Buildings, among many others. We also value the views of students, colleges and universities as important in gathering a full picture, and we consult with them too.
Part of preparing to enter a profession is exposure to different parts of the industry and we believe content that cuts across occupational standards is also needed – breadth is important in a great HTE experience. At a recent Digital sector consultation event, we heard from Amazon Web Services about the importance of studying topics like the Internet of Things: a concept concerned with data, connection and exchange of information.
These concepts have relevance to many disciplines and job roles and are important in giving students an understanding of what is useful to the broader workplace, not just their job role. HTE should support the development of 'diversity of thought’, the ability to explore, and to do this it needs to allow for inclusion of broad occupationally relevant content.
Choosing high-quality HTE
As Linking London put it, ‘we need to clearly re-position level 4 and 5 provision, as an industry-related way to achieve Higher Education with equal status to the university campus-based degree model’.
In a recent speech, the Secretary of State for Education agreed with the need to rethink the way student progression into HE is imagined:
For too long we have been funneling young people towards university degrees that do little for their skills or employability, saddling them with nothing but large debts and job prospects no better than they had before. This is not only a waste of potential on a colossal scale but it also harms productivity, which we can ill afford.
We have to make HTEs a high-value choice for individuals. This will take a concerted effort from government, providers and developers of HTE in coming years and months, with recognition given to the impact of factors like funding and changes to the way people learn.
Furthermore, in the days of COVID-19, flexible and accessible approaches to higher education are essential. We are working to make Higher Nationals in this mould, with the online learning platform HN Online and via the HN Flex service to allow for modularised delivery of Higher National qualifications.
The final piece of the puzzle is around Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) for prospective HTE students. We know that Higher Nationals are an excellent choice for student progression due to their recognition by employers, which in turn supports student employability. However, most individuals are still unaware of their options or experience barriers to choosing HTE, as explored in a recent DfE study. The Review has made suggestions for how IAG around HTE can be improved – we believe there is much to be done in this space to genuinely impact on the choices that individuals make about their future.
Delivering high-quality HTE
The continued success of HTE will rely heavily on the providers that deliver it, including further education colleges, universities, flagship Institutes of Technology (IoTs), national colleges and other providers. We work closely with our extensive network of providers to support them in delivering the best learning experience and outcomes possible for HTE students, with the most recent success being the development of new Higher Nationals in Digital Technologies, developed in partnership with the South Central IoT (SCIoT) and their extensive employer network as a key part of their IoT curriculum.
The Principal of SCIoT, Alex Warner, told us:
The South Central Institute of Technology (SCIoT) was pleased to partner with Pearson to develop the new HN Digital Technologies. We have been collaborating for over 12 months and we are delighted with the outcomes. A unique challenge we found ourselves in was having employers requesting multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge in the Digital/Technology sector, bringing together commercial and technical acumen, balancing the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours.
In order to navigate these challenges, we worked with SCIoT partners to combine latest industry practices with research and development input. The HN Digital Technologies will develop those in-demand skills required by employers, to support individuals to navigate the Digital landscape. The guidance from Pearson along our journey has been fantastic.