In many ways, there were no real surprises in the Spring Budget, with many of the initiatives having been announced in the Autumn Statement, which focussed more specifically on science and industry. The point of greatest novelty (although still not a complete surprise) was the focus on the longer-term future pipeline of talent in the workforce and the need to raise productivity in the UK. There is some attempt on the government’s part to more comprehensively approach the issue of the future workforce, and to provide an alternative but equally prestigious and valuable route into education and careers to the standard ‘A-level + Bachelor’s degree’ route. The government will create the ‘T-level’ for 16-19 year-olds, in which formal training hours will be increased by 50% over existing options and include a minimum 3-month placement in industry to ensure school leavers are ‘workplace ready’. This is in addition to other vocational initiatives that the previous parliament established, such as the creation of 1,000 degree apprenticeships, plus implementation of the new apprenticeship levy that will commence in April 2017. Beyond the 16-19 T-levels, loans are to be made available on a similar basis to existing support for university degrees to study at the new institutes and technical colleges the government intends to create. Further, at the highest educational levels, there is £300m funding support for 1,000 PhDs across all STEM areas.
The announcement of T-levels and a commitment to apprenticeships is welcome. The UK has long suffered from having too few clear and well-recognised (by both applicants and employers) alternative routes into skilled and high-paid work except for university degrees – and it is clear to me, as a university lecturer, that a degree structure and the forms of learning and knowledge testing used as standard forms of engagement in degree-level programmes do not suit all learners; nor is it always the most appropriate way to develop skills. As a senior admissions tutor for undergraduate programmes, I consider applications from mature applicants in their early- to mid-20s who state that, whilst they have progressed in their careers since leaving school, they now realise their ability to advance in their careers further is blocked by not having a formally recognised degree. I do wonder whether the decision to attend HE is the right one for them.
Sometimes, people are not ready emotionally or intellectually to deal with university-level education at 18, so choose not to apply for entry straight after school. Coming in later would seem appropriate, and we welcome them as they are more likely to succeed now than they would have been had they tried to come earlier. Others may have avoided university because they recognised early on that they did not want to, or were not able to, think in the particular ways in which we require students to think in order to achieve good marks in academic institutions driven by a strong research culture. For example, a recurring weakness in exam performance is the failure of students to answer the specifics of the question set – as opposed to displaying the general breadth of their knowledge – and an ability to make connections between the content they experienced on one subject and the content in the subject the specific exam is testing. The latter is looked for more generally in coursework or dissertations, but is not always appropriate in examination settings. There have been times in my career when I have seen the promise of an individual in the workplace setting and known that they will be a truly amazing employee, manager or future leader precisely because of their ability to see the ‘bigger picture’; yet, in the classroom and in written coursework and exams, they do not reveal the academic skills and precision that would get them the marks which signal their potential. Being ‘book smart’ is different to ‘street smart’, but our current system of HE is highly skewed towards the former.
The T-levels will offer a more streamlined pathway, with focused routes into 15 different areas, and have the potential to offer a different and equally valued and prestigious route into a career; but will their potential be realised? Leaving specific content aside, one of the key problems is the low profile, poor advertising and opacity associated with alternative routes into a career. The most well-established path is GCSEs, A-levels then university degrees. Chancellor Philip Hammond noted in his speech that 13,000 vocational and technical qualifications exist. How many of these are well-recognised and valued by HE institutions and employers? How much advice can cash-strapped schools and colleges provide on these qualifications to individuals looking for a career path that does not involve attending university for a bachelor’s degree? Arguably among the most well-established and widely recognised vocational qualifications are HNDs, NVQs and BTECs; how will these fair with the introduction of the new T-levels? Will the T-levels be a complementary or alternative offering to these existing qualifications, and, again, how will under-funded schools and FE colleges cope in terms of resourcing them? Whilst the Chancellor is keen to maintain choice, in reality will this mean cutting back on the provision of existing vocational qualifications?
Even if there could be a smooth introduction for T-levels, there is the question of how they would lead to more training and qualifications. One can envisage that T-levels could lead either directly to an apprenticeship, or to a place on one of the new degree apprenticeships that should emerge in the next few years, much like A-levels are the most commonly accepted way of accessing bachelor degree programmes. However, again, the pathway of this route is not as smooth as the one into existing degrees.
Whilst the government proudly announces its claim about 1,000 new degree apprenticeships being formed, the system that alerts people to these opportunities is hard to find and tricky to navigate. The chances of a person finding the right degree apprenticeship for them is remote – at least without a significant personal investment of time and research effort trolling through university or employer websites. The UCAS website provides basic information about apprenticeships, questions to consider and how to apply. It also lists employers with current schemes and links through to the government’s apprenticeship website – but from there the application process proceeds on a case-by-case basis because applicants are considered to be applying for jobs. Degree apprenticeships should grow quickly in the next few years, given the compulsory levy, and assessing these entirely on a case-by case basis is likely to become increasingly bureaucratic and cumbersome for both the employer and the university partner – who both need to be satisfied the applicant meets their respective requirements. The T-levels, alongside the better-recognised and better-established vocational qualifications, could be used as publicly available entry criteria by the universities providing the degree apprenticeships on the UCAS website. The applications should be made through an expanded UCAS service so that one application could be sent to multiple degree apprenticeships. From there, universities could select applicants who meet their academic requirements in a first round of consideration, and then this subset could be forwarded for consideration by the employing organisational partner in a second stage of the selection process; together, these actors could make a decision as to the suitability of the applicant. This would streamline the process for applicants, universities and employers alike, reducing the opacity and confusion of a currently complex pathway between school, post-16-19, further education, higher education and beyond.
The announcement of T-levels is an interesting proposal, and a welcome one at that – but there needs to be deeper and more systemic policy-thinking about how its introduction and implementation, as well as that of the apprenticeship levy, will lead to a greater proportion of the future workforce having the requisite skills to raise UK productivity.