T Levels and the university challenge

The introduction of T Levels, major new post-16 technical education qualifications, presents a significant challenge regarding progression to higher education. Drawing on independent primary research which investigated providers’ preparation to deliver the first T Levels and the perceptions of supporting sector organisations, David Sims, a Research Director at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), explains why.

What are T levels and why are they important?

T Levels are a key part of the government’s current reforms to strengthen England’s skills system by improving vocational and technical education. These two-year technical programmes for young people aged 16 to 19 years will combine classroom theory, practical learning and a significant industry placement. T Levels are important because they are planned to be a rigorous, high-quality alternative to A Levels which offer specialist pathways leading to technical roles. Young people with these qualifications can progress to an apprenticeship, a job or to higher education.

Each T Level will be equivalent to three A Levels. The first three T Levels to be delivered from September 2020 will be in Digital, Construction, and Education and Childcare. Fifty providers including further education colleges, independent training providers, sixth-form colleges, schools and a university will deliver one or more of these T Level programmes in different parts of England. A further 22 T Levels in a range of subjects including accountancy, health, manufacturing and science will be introduced between 2021 and 2023.

These technical qualifications are based on the same standards of skill required for apprenticeship job roles which were designed by employer representatives and approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. T Level panels, comprising subject and sector experts, have used these standards as the basis for developing the T Level outline content.

T Levels are much bigger in size than most other Level 3 qualifications. The total time for a T Level is expected, on average, to be around 1,800 hours over the two years, including the industry placement. This is a significant increase on most current Level 3 vocational and technical education courses. Further details are provided below.

T Level courses will include the following compulsory elements:

  • a technical qualification of between 900 and 1400 hours, incorporating:
    • core theory, concepts and skills for an industry area
    • specialist skills and knowledge for an occupation or career
  • an industry placement with an employer of between 315-420 hours
  • the study of English language and maths if students have not already achieved grade 4 or above in GCSE or a Level 2 functional skills qualification (estimated at around 70 hours for one GCSE and 140 hours for two).

T Levels may also include other occupationally-specific content set by T Level panels, leading to professional registration or licence to practice.

The Department for Education is establishing a tailored transition programme which will provide a preparation phase that will give students not yet ready to start a T Level at age 16 the opportunity to develop the academic skills, technical skills, knowledge and behaviours required to progress to a T Level, and to successfully complete it.

In October 2019, the government launched the NexT Level campaign aimed at raising national awareness of T Levels and promoting take up of the qualifications. The first T Level cohort from this autumn is estimated to be about 2,000 students.

NFER research on T Levels

NFER conducted a research study in 2019 to provide an independent evidence-informed picture of how provider organisations are preparing to deliver the first three T Levels. We carried out in-depth, semi-structured interviews with senior/middle leaders with organisation-wide responsibility for T Levels in half (25) of the first 50 providers of the three T Levels. We additionally interviewed ten senior sector representatives from: associations and unions of teachers, lecturers and education leaders; expert bodies covering applied learning, technical qualifications and professional development; and representative bodies of education and training providers and employers.

As noted in our T Levels Research Study report, interviewees recommended that government needs to do more to promote T Levels to young people, parents/carers, employers and the higher education sector. In our recent follow-up report, we reported that delegates attending a roundtable event we ran in October welcomed the UCAS Tariff Points that have been allocated to T Levels. Although the NexT Level campaign states that T Levels ‘will be recognised by universities and other education providers’, universities are free to decide whether they will accept T Levels and there were questions as to whether Russell Group institutions will accept T Levels and what type of courses T Level students will be able to progress on to. Linked to this, decisions made by Russell Group universities may influence other universities and could tarnish T Levels in the minds of parents/carers.

The university challenge

The challenge for universities is to assess the detailed specifications for the first three T Levels as soon as they become available in spring this year and make decisions about whether they will accept them as entry qualifications. Universities’ acceptance of T Levels would help to raise the profile of these qualifications and boost their currency and appeal.

Another challenge for universities to consider is what role T Levels might play in widening participation and increasing access to higher education in their institutions. Here it is worth noting that the T Levels technical route to university might be preferable to the A Level route for some young people who would not otherwise consider going into higher education.

Finally, there have been repeated government attempts over many years to improve the quality and enhance the standing of technical education in England which have failed. Some readers may well remember the fate of the 14-19 Diplomas. A key question is whether universities can or should help to ensure that T Levels make a major contribution to improving technical education at the same time providing positive outcomes for young people, society and the economy?

David Sims is a FACE Exec member and Research Director at NFER

Image credit: Chevanon Photography 

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