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‘The best kept secret’: Education designed to improve social mobility

Linking London's Executive Director Sue Betts and Director Andrew Jones have written a timely article on Level 4 and 5 qualifications.

Who knows that there are decent qualifications around at level 4 (a year after A level or a BTEC) that support you whilst in employment or into employment, especially in the areas of construction and engineering? Who knows that there are similar good qualifications at the next level up – 5 and who knows that you can, if you wish ‘top up’ these qualifications, with a further year of study, so that you can gain a degree qualification, probably as a Bachelor of Science (BSc), in the subject areas mentioned?

If you didn’t know this you can be forgiven, especially if you work outside of education, because these level 4 and 5 qualifications as we know them are one of the ‘best kept secrets’ in the world of education. If we could work out why they work in areas like construction and engineering we might be able to apply the same criteria or ingredients to other areas and really work some magic.

If only it were that simple or to put it another way – why choose this route if you can be offered a full-blown degree course from the start?

Everyone knows about the A level to university route and increasingly the BTEC (especially with the reformed RQF qualification) to university route for some. And with so many young people taking this route we have nearly hit the Tony Blair target of 50%. So perhaps there isn’t a need to look elsewhere?      

But it is more complex than that. Funding, we think, is a big factor, which encourages both universities and individuals to go for the three year option. At £9,250 fees a year at the moment and with student loans available, cost is obviously not a deterring factor. And as more and more people take this route, so the supply of other routes – roll on roll off, modular, flexible and cheaper – fall by the wayside. So the problem becomes worse, and the level 4 and 5 provision which should be serving the needs of the economy, employers and our citizens could fall into disuse. In fact people have started calling it the ‘missing middle’[1]. Compared to other countries the percentage of learners undertaking this route is abysmally small and is getting smaller.

Academic ‘drift’ also plays a part in these developments – why go for a ‘sub’ bachelor’s qualification or a ‘Foundation’ Degree or Higher National qualification, when you can go for the full Bachelor of Arts/Science?

Higher education behaviour too has a role here. In the past the numbers of students admitted to university was controlled. In December 2013 George Osborne decided to remove ‘student number controls’ as they were known and this certainly contributed to the unrestricted growth in university three year places.

So through a mixture of changes in providers’ behaviour, the raising of fees, the availability of students’ loans, leading to the drop in numbers of part-time students, and lack of information on the value of level 4 and 5 Higher Technical Education you can see how we have arrived at a situation where the decline has taken us to a very worrying and perilous position.

Why should we worry?

The country has an acute skills shortage in associate professional and technician occupations, jobs that typically require a level 4 or 5 qualification. This situation will be exacerbated by Brexit. In addition we have an ageing workforce, to say nothing of the impact of new technology and the need for re-training.

We need a well-established and reputable route for people to gain higher level qualifications without having to make a full-time three year commitment which an on campus degree requires. These may be people already in work; qualified to level 3, or people who wish to re-train in another area of the economy. In the HEPI report ‘Filling in the Biggest Skills Gap’ authored by Dave Phoenix, Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University, he highlights the fact that there are currently approximately 20 million working age adults without qualifications at level 4 or above. Job change is so rapid these days that most people will have many ‘careers’ in their lifetime. So we need an agile and efficient system of education to respond to these needs. We only have to look at the work of the London Mayor and his recently launched ‘Skills Strategy for Londoners’ to see that there is a desperate need for more flexible and responsive vocational provision. Many Londoners are stuck in low pay, with little chance to progress to better paid, more secure work. Between 2011 and 2015, just 3.1 per cent (per quarter) of London residents employed in low-skilled occupations progressed to a mid-skilled occupation. This was lower than the average across the UK (3.5 per cent per quarter) and is preventing London from developing an economy that is fair and inclusive[2].

So what’s to be done?

Returning to our theme of the ‘best kept secret’ we think 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. At the moment we feel it lacks a clear message about what it is and who it is for. Clarity would find favour with employers; we know it works in some professional sectors already.

Linking London was delighted to be invited to the BTEC Student of the Year awards this summer. At this event the BTEC Student of the Year for 2019, Christopher Meredith, was a great example of why we need to move away from a ‘degree or fail’ culture to a flexible ‘ladder of learning’ model, and to acknowledge and promote alternative routes within Higher Education ( Chris is a Higher National Diploma 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. In March, Chris gained the Institution of Civil Engineer’s Quest Technician Scholarship – awarded only to Apprentices of the highest calibre. He has thrived on a course that blends a college and work environment. As he puts it he uses his knowledge at work and his work knowledge at the college. 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. This is an effective model that should be considered and resourced in raising the profile of level 4 and 5 technical education.

A campaign targeted at the millions of learners qualified to level 3 would also send a clear message. Progression and greater achievement is possible. If Further Education Colleges, which are the largest single providers of level 4 and 5 provision, were given greater control over ‘articulation’ of their level 5 programmes with level 6 degrees, this would ensure a guaranteed route into a Bachelor’s degree, if required by the learner for career progression. Further Education Colleges would also need greater funding (especially capital funding for investment in up to date facilities) and support for staff continuous professional development (e.g. knowledge gained through industrial visits and placements).

This needs to be supported by a campaign about costs, availability of loans and ease of learning. To be really effective level 4 and 5 provision needs to be able to work around people’s lives; so flexible, blended and on-line learning needs to be harnessed to support people wherever they chose to learn. The ability to learn while at work could also be a strong motivating factor both for the individual and the employer, so work-based assignments could be capitalised on as could individuals’ prior learning.

The involvement and endorsement of professional bodies and associations would also strengthen the currency of these qualifications and give them national and international portability. In addition for some employers the freeing up of the apprenticeship ‘levy’ to pay for level 4 and 5 provision would be helpful. As might a kite mark for being a good employer developing a ‘learning’ organisation.

We believe that these changes taken together could help to address skills shortages, improve productivity, and support the development of a valued, flexible route into higher learning.

Perhaps most significantly, as Linking London[3], an organisation dedicated to the cause of social mobility and justice, it must be right for us in partnership to promote level 4 and 5 qualifications that can support a learner’s progression and advancement throughout their life.

Sue Betts and Andrew Jones

Executive Director and Director – Linking London. September 2019


[1] For a very thorough investigation of this topic please see ‘The Missing Middle: Higher Technical Education in England’ by Simon Field – funded and published by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation

[2] Skills for Londoners. The Skills and Adult Strategy for London. June 2018. 


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