New era, new focus!

By Nick Davy, FACE Executive Member, HE Projects Consultant, Association of Colleges
 
Widening participation to higher education across Europe tends to be associated with access to Bachelor programmes. However, there are also many qualifications in England and other countries, still offered in some universities, which are levelled at level four and above. These are rarely considered as “higher education” (HE) because they do not conform to the regulations that govern degree programmes and lower exit qualifications after one or two years of degree study.

These qualifications, outside “formal HE” can be found in a variety of sectors – Continuing Vocational Educational Training (C-VET), Higher Vocational Educational Training (HVET), possibly Professional Higher Education (PHE) – and different institutions – higher vocational colleges, adult colleges of education, technological university institutes, colleges of Further Education (FE) – dependent on country.

At the same time, many European countries offer European qualification framework level five programmes (Foundation Degrees, Higher National Diplomas aka HNDs in England) that may or may not meet degree programme regulations.

The numbers of students on these, usually technical and labour market focussed programmes, are increasing in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia and the Basque autonomous region. And Flanders, Belgium, Croatia and Estonia are seeking to introduce these programmes. Scotland (HNDs) and France have long had established and successful level 5 programmes.

The development of these programmes are partly a corollary of academic drift, and universities aspiring to operate in national and international markets, leading many to sever their local links and weaken local progression routes, particularly for vocational and part-time learners. In several city regions in England, there is a limited part-time undergraduate and professional awards offer. Non-prescribed HE is also very unevenly spread. The process of professions using part or all of an undergraduate programme as an entry requirement has considerably reduced work-based and flexible entry routes. Senior policy makers are aware of these trends.
Recent reports by OECD and CEDEFOP (European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training) have focussed on this ‘alternative HE sector’, its relative invisibility, and argued for its expansion. And this is good news for young people and those seeking to re-skill who do not engage easily with the traditional academic curriculum and associated pedagogy.

It is also beneficial from a widening participation perspective as across all countries these qualifications attract a higher proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and deprived neighbourhoods than traditional academic degree programmes.
Recent skills policy developments in England – Sainsbury Review, Post-16 skills Plan, Institutes of Technology and support for a stronger technical education sector – all point to the qualifications and enrolments in this ‘HVET sector’ growing. The growth in apprenticeship standards – one third at the higher level – and degree apprenticeships will further this expansion.

This will mean that in England in ten years time we could have a four stream tertiary education system – academic, professional HE, technical education/HVET and higher/degree apprenticeships – meeting the educational needs of a far broader spectrum of the population.

It behoves all involved in the English widening participation community to support these developments and ensure that the right data is collected to monitor participation, and work towards building robust transfer and bridging schemes to maximise transferability and progression.

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