Skills beyond school: the role of short cycle higher vocational qualifications

The OECD has just published a new report, Skills beyond school – England, which recommends a significant increase in one- and two-year vocational programmes. Fewer than 10% of young people in England currently take a short vocational programme in mid-level skills, compared with up to one third in other OECD countries. The OECD report makes a number of recommendations designed to make short vocational programmes more attractive.

As an aside, the OECD calls these ‘short’ programmes, which is ironic given that you can take an entire apprenticeship within a year. Damaging as this might be for the reputation of British apprenticeships, though, it’s a side issue in this particular context.

If the Department for Business Innovation and Skills wants to learn some easy lessons, it could do worse than look across the border to Scotland. I’m not one of those people who think everything in education is better in Scotland – far from it – but we do have considerable experience of a large programme of short cycle higher education, largely taught in non-university settings. So what can we learn from the Scottish example?

  • It is a sizeable system. One in every three higher education students in Scotland is in a college, taking an HNC/HND. These courses are highly attractive, partly because they are locally offered (there is a college campus in virtually every community of every size), and partly because they are flexible, with many of the students following part-time routes.
  • Short cycle higher education widens participation. While universities in Scotland recruit students who come mainly from the upper socio-economic groups, colleges overwhelmingly recruit the less advantaged.
  • The system has a bias towards employability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the kinds of subject that the OECD might have in mind: the largest number of HNCs and HNDs are awarded in business and management, followed by health, then creative arts and design. Engineering and computing are significant in size, but are far from the most popular subjects. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the system fits the vocational model recommended by OECD.
  • Short cycle qualifications appear to be valued in the labour market. Studies of the earnings effects of HNCs and HNDs show that average salaries are lower than for a degree, but clearly above the earnings of those who have lower level qualifications. However, we don’t have many such studies, and none cover the period since the onset of the recession.

So the Scottish system of short cycle higher education, delivered in non-university contexts, has some clear strengths. But anyone looking for easy lessons should also be aware that the Scottish system has come at a cost.

One is that over time, short cycle higher education has tended to crowd vocational further education out. The proportion of college students registered for HNCs and HNDs has held steady over the past seven or eight years, but the number on so-called ‘non-advanced’ courses has fallen. I don’t know whether this is because colleges see higher education as more prestigious, or because it is financially advantageous, or for some other reason, but that is what has happened.

Another problem is that increasingly, the focus has narrowed down to initial full-time courses. For twenty years, the expanded short cycle programmes formed part of a lifelong learning system, attracting many adults through their flexibility and relevance. As the Scottish Government has sought savings to protect its university spending (particularly its policy on tuition fees), so it has slashed back on part-time routes to HNCs and HNDs.

Lastly, while short cycle courses have helped to increase higher education participation and widen it, Scottish universities have remained stubbornly selective in their intake. Scotland has a two tier system, where the colleges’ success in widening access allows the universities to carry on with business as usual. We may not have selection at 11, but higher education is effectively streamed.

So there’s plenty to chew on if England is to expand its vocational system in the direction recommended by OECD. Certainly, given the scandals over poor quality apprenticeships and unpaid ‘training’ schemes, a move up market would not go amiss. But it needs to be done in a way that helps contribute towards lifelong learning rather than damaging it.

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One thought on “Skills beyond school: the role of short cycle higher vocational qualifications

  1. Pingback: Widening participation in the Four Nations | thelearningprofessor

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