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Level 4 and 5 education

Published Monday, November 4, 2019

This briefing paper provides an overview of Level 4 and 5 education (i.e. qualifications between A Levels and an undergraduate degree), including Government proposals for reform.

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Level 4 and 5 qualifications

Level 4 and 5 qualifications sit in between A Levels and an undergraduate degree. They are typically, although not exclusively, technical in nature. Examples include, but are not limited to, foundation degrees, Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE), Diplomas in Higher Education (DipHEs), Higher National Certificates (HNCs), Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), professional qualifications, and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). They are delivered in a range of education institutions, with around half of Level 4 and 5 students taught in further education colleges and around a third in universities.

In 2016-17, there were around 190,000 learners studying at Levels 4 and 5 (excluding apprenticeships). Their average age was 30 and around half studied part-time.

Take-up and skills gaps

Evidence suggests that the take-up of Level 4 and 5 qualifications is low in England compared to other countries. Around 10% of all adults aged 18-65 hold a level 4-5 qualification as their highest, compared to around 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. Take-up of Level 4 and 5 qualifications is also low compared to other levels of education. Around 4% of 25 year olds in England hold a Level 4 or 5 qualification as their highest qualification, compared to nearly 30% for both Level 3 (e.g. A Levels) and Level 6 (e.g. undergraduate degree). The numbers enrolling on Level 4 and 5 qualifications is also in decline and fell by 63% between 2009-10 and 2016-17 (from around 510,000 to approximately 190,000).

There is evidence, however, of un-met demand for higher level technical skills and it is suggested that skills gaps at the higher technical level may be contributing the UK’s “productivity gap”.

Reform of Level 4 and 5 qualifications

As part of major reforms to technical education in England, in October 2017 the Government announced that it would review higher level technical education to see how it could better meet the needs of learners and employers. Interim findings from the review were published in August 2018.

Following this, in July 2019 the Department for Education launched a consultation on proposed reforms to higher technical education in England. Under the proposals, Level 4 and 5 qualifications that align with employer-set occupational standards will be approved by The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and re-badged as higher technical qualifications (HTQs). All approved HTQs will also be clearly identified through a single name or kitemark. The aim is for the first HTQs to be available from 2022 when the first T Level students will complete their courses.

In order to deliver approved qualifications, providers will have to meet an additional set out ongoing registration conditions specifically for higher technical provision, developed by the Office for Students.

The consultation closed on 29th September 2019. The Government is yet to respond.

Review of Post-18 Education and Funding

In February 2018, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a wide-ranging review of Post-18 Education and Funding. She added that the review would be informed by advice from an independent panel led by Philip Augar.

The report of the independent panel was published on 30 May 2019. It made a number of recommendations aimed at encouraging growth in Level 4and 5 qualifications, including (but not limited to):

  • From 2021-22 the fee cap for Level 4 and 5 qualifications prescribed by the OfS should be the same as for Level 6 qualifications (the Report recommended £7,500).
  • The Government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan allowance for tuition loans at Levels 4, 5 and 6, which learners can draw down over a lifetime.
  • Maintenance support should be available for all students taking Level 4 to 6 qualifications.
  • The Office for Students should become the national regulator of all non-apprenticeship provision at Levels 4 and above.
  • The Government should work with the OfS to allocate additional support and capital funding to specific FE colleges to ensure a national network of high quality technical provision is available.

In October 2019 the Government stated that it had not taken any decisions with regards to the recommendations and would “provide Parliament with an update later in the year.”

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8732

Author: David Foster

Topics: Adult education, Further education, Higher education, Students, Training

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