The qualification and skills landscape is changing. Higher and degree apprenticeships are growing rapidly, there is a push to introduce T levels at level 3 and the potential withdrawing of funding for Applied Generals. The Skills for Jobs White Paper has put a huge emphasis on higher technical education at levels 4 and 5 and Government is also pushing for HE to offer more ‘bite-sized’ provision, to make greater use of credit and focus on adult skills with HM Treasury focused on the role of skills in raising productivity and the return on public investment delivered by education and skills provision. The skills agenda and in particular the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, was central to the May 2021 Queen’s Speech.
Much outreach work described in Access and Participation Plans (APPs) is still focussed on a model of raising aspirations and awareness regarding HE opportunities, whereas outcomes are more likely to be delivered if clear progression pathways to professional status are promoted and provided. It is now time that higher education (HE) reflects on what should be considered for inclusion in APPs in respect of skills, technical education, apprenticeships and adult learning provision. A key question for every HE provider is how their Access and Participation Plan should be developed and delivered in a post Covid-19 economy, in particular how they should maximise opportunities for underrepresented groups to access and benefit from HE through technical education including higher and degree apprenticeships. The pandemic has had a harsher impact on some groups. While it may be too early to draw definitive conclusions, certain occupations and sectors are more adversely affected than others as are some localities. Individuals in occupations with lower-level skills and those under 30 are particularly adversely affected. Employers and Westminster Government will expect HEIs to have a fundamental role, often in partnership with FE providers, in delivering the skills those newly entering and those already in the workforce need in a post pandemic recovery. HE providers need to ensure approaches to skills provision focus on the needs of the national and local economies, engage learners from all backgrounds and all ages. The key approach here is flexibility. This does not just mean bite-sized provision, but also more transparent opportunities for learners to access HE with recognition of their prior learning, building on the required practice of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and more effective use of Cert HE and Dip HE exit qualifications. The Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth White Paper outlines such a direction of travel along with plans to develop a world-class technical education system in which HE will have a key role to play in the development, delivery and accreditation of technical, associate professional and professional education. This will call for a more enhanced form of partnership between further and higher education. An employer seeking to train and develop new and/or existing employees wants a skills solution, rather than just an FE or HE programme. Individuals want the skills needed in the jobs market whether it is provided by an FE or HE provider. Crucially, however, individuals following skills programme in FE need to have the right opportunities to progress to HE delivered by and HE provider or a further education college or independent training provider. Approaches to skills, workforce development and continuing professional development (CPD) need to be combined with approaches to access and participation.
The University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC) was founded in 1999 as a not-for-profit higher education organisation to champion higher level vocational learning. Our remit is to support HE providers, working with employers and partners, to successfully engage in and deliver this agenda and we have over 80 universities drawn from England and Wales and from across all mission groups. We observe and advise that APPs should do more to define how adult skills provision could be developed and delivered to maximise the recruitment and retention of underrepresented cohorts to and through higher education and into graduate jobs and the professions. HE providers already deliver technical education including apprenticeships that are key to realising the Government’s skills agenda, for example, through nursing, policing, social work, digital and engineering programmes. Such provision can also be designed to enable people from underrepresented backgrounds to access higher education and technical and professional level jobs. This key HE provider role in skills delivery, particularly in terms of measurable outcomes, is simply lacking in APPs. Indeed, more generally, the HE provider role in skills is also often underplayed and insufficiently recognised. If work is undertaken to steer and align plans for developing and delivering skills provision through HE providers, with priority groups and access and participation at its core, this will result in a productive alignment between two key Government policy areas; firstly, widening participation and secondly, developing the higher-level skills the economy and society needs.
Director of Policy and Operations