The missing middle
Developing quality HTE provision at levels 4 and 5
Everyone who works in further education and training will be aware of the technical educational reform that has swept through the sector in recent years. Rooted in the recommendations of the 2016 Sainsbury review, we’ve seen the introduction of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), occupational standards (set by trailblazer employer panels) and a new suite of technical qualifications linked to them: T Levels and Apprenticeships. The standards ensure that we are preparing individuals of all ages for the workplace, developing their knowledge, skills and behavioural competencies. We are preparing individuals for today’s workplace, and giving them the skills to adapt to future jobs.
Much of that reform has focussed on Level 3, but the reforms don’t stop there. If you’re delivering higher education (HE) qualifications – and there is substantial provision within further education (FE) settings to including HNC’s, HND’s foundation degrees, degree-level qualifications and a whole range of short courses at Levels 4 and 5 – change is coming, and it’s time to start preparing.
A new kite mark for HTQs
This next stage of technical education reform was driven by the 2019 Augur Report [Ref 1] and is described in the Department for Education’s 2020 paper ‘Reforming Higher Technical Education’ [Ref 2]:
"Approved HTQs will be clearly identified through a government-backed brand and quality mark, so learners can find the right higher technical courses and employers can hire people with the right skills. These qualifications will:
- Provide the knowledge, skills and behaviours that are needed to enter occupation(s) across the country;
- Be understood and recognised as high-quality by employers and so have national labour market currency; and
- Give learners confidence that those qualifications are recognised by employers and are perceived to be a credible, prestigious, and distinct pathway."
To achieve this kite-mark, providers will need to demonstrate that their qualification addresses the occupational competencies described in an occupational standard. These standards will be familiar to anyone who’s delivered apprenticeships or T Levels, but not necessarily to colleagues working on HNCs (Level 4), HNDs (Level 5), foundation degrees (Level 5), degree top-ups at Level 6 and higher technical short courses. Achieving the HTQ kite-mark will require providers to satisfy the demands of multiple partners, for example:
- the academic quality requirements of the higher education institution (HEI) that validates their foundation degrees
- the desired outcomes of their employer partners
- the accreditation requirements of one or more professional bodies (for example, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and the Engineering Council)
- alignment with an occupational standard to gain the approval of the IfATE.
Chris explains how Lakes College (National College for Nuclear - NCFN) have positioned themselves for the up-coming changes:
“When we developed our Engineering degree programmes four years ago, we wanted to align them with competencies stated within the approved occupational standards, particularly around the higher apprenticeships. We decided to focus on nuclear to start with and then look at the Engineering Council competencies for Engineering Technician at Level 5, and Incorporated Engineer (IEng) competencies at Level 6. We found that by linking those competencies through certain modules – work-based learning modules, professional development modules and project modules – learners can focus their work on the set of competencies that they’re working towards.”
Lakes College (NCfN) have used this to their advantage in terms of recruitment and associated income. The external accreditation by professional bodies they have gained, gives their programmes a ‘market value’ outside of apprenticeship partnerships and offers additional value to the local area. For Chris and Lakes College (NCfN), providing educational opportunities to communities in West Cumbria is a key driver for their high technical qualifications:
“We’re about keeping people local. That’s going to be one of the key things about HTQs in the future: students coming through can aspire to do higher qualifications without having to travel to bigger cities. They can stay local and study local. There are a lot of bright kids in Cumbria and, by developing these degrees, we’ve helped to keep some really talented youngsters here.”
The benefits of HTQs aren’t just for young learners, of course. Adults already in the workforce, and keen to upskill or change careers, and those returning to the workforce, can benefit from work-based routes to higher qualifications and fulfilling occupations.
”We have had a recent example of this. A qualified pharmacist wanted to retrain to work in the nuclear industry, That individual has self-paid their way through our Foundation Degree and then the Bachelor’s Degree top-up in Decommissioning and Waste Management. They have recently been awarded a place on the Sellafield Graduate Scheme, on the basis that they have completed an accredited degree, which develops the same knowledge, skills and behaviours that their higher apprentices are receiving at Lakes College.’’
Driving regional skills improvement in electric vehicles
Providers shouldn’t focus only on Level 6 in their development of higher technical qualifications. In many industry sectors, qualifications at Level 4 and 5 will be key to upskilling local and regional workforces. Lincoln College – as part of Lincolnshire Institute of Technology – are providing Level 4 technical qualifications to support the local and regional automotive technician workforce to gain expertise in electric vehicle maintenance. Peter Jackson, ETF and Royal Commission Technical Teaching Fellow and Learning & Skills Lead at the College, shared some of the challenges:
“Only 6.5% of vehicle technicians are qualified to work on the high voltage systems we’re seeing in today’s electric and hybrid vehicles. Historically, technicians are normally qualified to Level 2 or 3 in mechanical maintenance and repair. Going ‘electric’ means changing the electrical power systems on our roads to include voltages more than 60 times higher than those in petrol and diesel vehicles. We now need to comply with the Electricity at Work Regulations and provide all employees with adequate training and information on electrical safety. There is a need to upskill qualified vehicle technicians with electric/hybrid vehicle skills by starting at level 2 Level 3 and to build up to level 4 and then onwards, and so that's what we're doing.”
Two-day courses at Levels 2 and 3 take technicians through the basis of working on high-voltage electric vehicles with a focus knowledge, skills and behaviours for safe working. Once those pre-requisites are covered, the College provides another two-day course at Level 4, designed by the Institute for the Motor Industry (IMI) in ‘Diagnosis, Testing and Repair of Electric/Hybrid Vehicles and Components’. This gives a total of six days of upskilling. Once the electric/hybrid qualifications are achieved, technicians are offered a place on the IMI Professional Register and given recognition as having ‘TechSafe™’ accreditation’.
The IMI are leading change across the automotive sector to support the rapid shift towards electric vehicles, in the context of the UK’s net-zero targets for carbon reduction. Occupational standards and HTQs in the sector will be designed for the industry. A High Value Manufacturing ‘Catapult’ project is also exploring the development of a national framework for electrification skills and released this report in September 2021.
TCOP will explore the technological and workforce developments around electrification in more detail in the coming months. Developments in the sector are an excellent example of where industry bodies – working in collaborative with higher education, further education and employers – are driving change in technical qualifications.
The ‘missing middle’
This qualifications ‘gap’ in UK higher technical education is the subject of 2020 research commission by Learning and Work Institute (LWI) which found that:
“While the UK has a relatively highly qualified population, it suffers from a ‘missing middle’ in HTE. Just one in ten (10 per cent) adults in the UK has a Level 4 or 5 qualification as their highest level of qualification, compared to one in five (20 per cent) in Germany and one in three (34 per cent) in Canada. The UK comes 16th out of 20 OECD nations in the proportion of adults who have a highest-level qualification at this level.” [Ref 3]
The report goes on to say that:
“This missing middle poses challenges, and it is a lost opportunity. The lack of qualifications at Level 4 and 5 leaves the UK’s labour market excessively polarised, hampering social mobility; people who do not opt to go to university often struggle to progress to higher levels of qualification, and to higher-skilled, higher paid roles. The lack of qualifications at this level can help explain lower levels of productivity in the UK.”
The role, and potential, of Further Education to address this ‘missing middle’ is clear.
Where to start?
Lakes College (NCfN) had foresight in their development of a new suite of higher technical programmes. Lincoln College are on the front line of a fast-evolving landscape for electrification skills and are linked into regional and national developments.
For many providers, achieving HTQ status could involve considerable work in re-engaging employer partners, professional bodies and validating HEIs. Chris has the following advice for those at the start of this journey:
- Start by talking to your employer partners: unpick exactly which roles they want to fill through their HTQs
- Establish the knowledge, skills and behaviours that they will need to have for those roles and potential future roles
- Match those to an occupational standard (or, if an appropriate standard doesn’t exist, begin a conversation with the IfATE)
- Consider how those knowledge, skills and behaviours can be translated into modules and learning outcomes that meet the requirements of your HEI and employer stakeholders
- Consider your teaching and learning environment and think: how can the sector-specific skills that learners need be supported and developed through the teaching space that we provide? Do learners have access to industry standard equipment and technology and are they being supported to become effective in their use?
Done well, this next stage of technical educational reform has the potential to refresh and re-energise technical educational offers that may have lost relevance in fast-moving industrial sectors, to revitalise provision, and to retrain and re-skill regional workforces.
Further education – already in ascendance – has the potential to redefine the educational-industrial landscape by further embedding its relevance to, and relationship with, employers and industry through approved HTQs.
Further Reading: A conceptual model for stimulating employer demand for HTE
In "Making a market for the missing middle: Higher technical education" [Ref 3] the Learning and Work Institute suggest the below model for 'stimulating employer demand for HTE' in partnership with employers and other stakeholders, and in the context of national policy, and your local economy.
1. Augur, P (2019). ‘Review of Post-18 Education and Funding’ [online]. Post-18 Education and Funding Review Panel. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
2. DfE (2020). ‘Reforming Higher Technical Education’ [online]. Department for Education. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
3. LWI (2021). Making a market for the missing middle: Higher technical education [online]. Learning and Work Institute and the Gatsby Foundation. [Accessed 11 January 2022]