‘Rapid decline’ in higher technical education must be reversed – report

Backing higher technical education should be the top priority for kickstarting a ‘skills revolution’ says a new report by the Lifelong Education Commission

A report published today (27 April) by the Lifelong Education Commission (LEC) puts forward a number of recommendations to reverse a “rapid decline” in higher technical education in the UK.

The report – The future of higher technical education in England: expanding opportunity for all – finds that learner enrolment in higher technical education (HTE) courses has fallen by 25% over the last five years, even as the number of students embarking on full degrees climbed by 8%.

Addressing the consequent gap in skills, argues the LEC, could be crucial to the government delivering on its “levelling up” plans.

“Higher technical education has too often been treated as the overlooked stage of the education sector, despite having a rich and proud tradition to back it up,” said LEC chairman and former universities minister, Chris Skidmore.

“The decline of specialist technical colleges in the 1990s led to an explosion in higher education, but it also left huge swathes of England’s learners without the skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Supercharging higher technical education should be priority number one in the government’s plan to kickstart a ‘skills revolution’ in the UK – Chris Skidmore, LEC

While welcoming elements of the government’s levelling up white paper and the skills and post-16 education bill – such as offering a lifelong loan entitlement for the funding of up to four years of post-18 education – the report’s authors claim that the “absence of a joined-up approach” may dilute their impact.

“Increasing the take-up of higher technical education will be critical to plugging skills gaps in key sectors, driving economic growth and levelling up opportunity across the country,” said Professor Helen Marshall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, the institution which supported LEC’s research. “However, there are barriers to this.

“There is a lack of understanding amongst students, teachers, and employers about what higher technical education is and why it’s valuable, and there is a wrongly perceived lower level of prestige associated with these courses when compared to other higher education routes.”

Read more: Vice-chancellors launch higher technical education report

Marshall’s claim echoes the Augar review, which said that the technical post-18 education system has suffered “a loss of status and prestige amongst learners, employers and the public at large”.

The issue is addressed in many of the report’s recommendations for reforming HTE, including calls for the government to:

  • Help promote HTE by offering institutes of technology (IoTs) funding to run their own promotion campaigns, allowing them to draw on their knowledge of local economic and social context
  • Launch two distinct national information campaigns promoting HTE, one focusing on 16-18-year-old learners and the other aimed at employers and experienced workers looking to upskill or reskill
  • Commit to further funding for IoTs able to demonstrate they are having a positive effect on supporting local economic specialisms and clusters
  • Deliver a flexible lifelong loan entitlement for HTE on an equal basis to full degrees
  • Allow access to maintenance support funding for HTE students
  • Improve careers options, information, advice and guidance at all ages for higher technical options post-16

“Supercharging higher technical education should be priority number one in the government’s plan to kickstart a ‘skills revolution’ in the UK,” said Skidmore.

“The legislative framework for this has already been set down in the skills and post-16 education bill. However, to make the most of this golden opportunity, policymakers must choose the right approach.”

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