Today's world is one in which around half of our young people move straight on to full-time university after school, in which research-intensive universities are held up as the most aspirational and prestigious destinations at 18, with schools incentivised to measure success more by Oxbridge admissions than by the deeper fulfilment of their pupils. A visitor from another planet could be forgiven for inferring that the UK mysteriously possesses more than its fair share of would-be academics. The reality, of course, is different: 86.7%i of newly minted graduates progress into the labour pool in a wide range of careers — in around a quarter of cases, into careers that are not considered ‘graduate occupations’ and have little or no bearing on the subject discipline to which they have dedicated the preceding three or four years.ii
Increasingly over the past 20 years learners have viewed Higher Education (HE) as the only entry into the world of high skilled work. Since the 50% target was set by New Labour in 1999, there has been a steady year-on-year increase in the number of young people accessing HE. Alongside this trend, the chorus of voices extolling the need for 'parity of esteem' between the "academic" and "vocational" educational pathways has rarely been silent. At IfATE we hear this all the time: 'Other people,' we are told, 'still don't have confidence in the prestige of apprenticeships.' Whilst we have never heard anyone express this view directly, it is often ascribed to the collective mindset of recruiters in the nation. Rather, the conversations with employers we have every day at IfATE suggests that employers and learners are increasingly energised and inspired by what the technical education system has to offer.
In the past year alone, participation in apprenticeship and technical education has increased to 572,210 compared to 555,890 in the same period last year.iii This can be viewed as a vote of confidence in the system IfATE is at the forefront of creating, with learners seeing the value of studying and achieving high quality, employer-led, education products. To-date IfATE have worked with employers to create 663 occupational standardsiv, maintaining and updating them to keep pace with changing social and industrial priorities. What apprentices (and other technical students) learn in today's system is designed by employers to suit their authentic skills needs, the levy has incentivised participation in the apprenticeship system, and the wider technical system delivers skills at all levels of the labour market — from traditional trades through to professions not usually associated with technical education, like solicitors, space-engineers and doctors.
It is true that technical qualifications have been developed primarily to lead to skilled employment, however these knowledge and skills can just as easily underpin progression to higher level related study. T Levels, which blend advanced study with authentic and sustained workplace experience, can provide learners with considerable flexibility, making them work-ready, whilst simultaneously providing them a viable route into HE if this is their preferred option.
The introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) also provides learners a viable, government recognised, route into higher level occupations (at levels 4/5). 'Intermediate skills' are well-understood as critical to raising productivity and achieving the aspiration of a high-skill, high-value economy. Training at this level is however traditionally dogged by low supply and demand in the UK. At a time of significant labour market change caused by factors such as Brexit, Covid-19, and the move towards Industry 4.0, it is essential that individuals have access to high-quality training at these intermediate levels; preparing them to succeed in a rapidly changing jobs market. HTQs provide just this opportunity, delivering high-quality employer-specified training to learners of all ages, equipping them to progress in their chosen career, or transition into a new skilled occupation. The completion of an HTQ can also provide an effective bridge for learners looking to progress into undergraduate study, with many delivered in HE Institutions, giving learners access to the full ‘student experience’ and further blurring the distinction between academic and technical.
In addition to HTQs, degree apprenticeships have become an attractive option for both individuals and organisations. They offer the blend of part-time university study alongside experience in the workplace, without the tuition fees; with employers able to finance study through the apprenticeship levy. The existence of degree apprenticeships has further increased the cohort of ‘technical’ learners in the HE space, as well as increasing the opportunity for participation from individuals for whom the requirement to take out loan debt may have been a significant cultural or financial barrier. In contrast to their counterparts undertaking a traditional undergraduate degree, degree apprentices benefit from developing a blend of theoretical knowledge, alongside extensive in-work practice This defining characteristic serves to reinforce and solidify a graduate’s competence, equipping them with the ‘know how’ and experience to immediately succeed in full-time employment. This emphasis on practice is evidently valued by employers as salary information tells us.
For example, one university reported that one year after graduation, Digital Route apprentice earnings were on average 46% more than the average UK computing graduate - and 5% more than average graduates from the top-five computing courses in the UK.
Whilst the move towards a more highly educated populace can be seen as a general good, terms like under-employment and over-educated are becoming more commonly used. The skills system of apprenticeships and technical qualifications exists to ensure career entrants are properly equipped for the jobs they want to do. Consequently, employers have begun to recognise the value of enabling recruitment pathways for individuals from a wider range of prior educational pathways and some jobs not requiring any form of HE at all and candidates instead being assessed on their experience.v
We are even seeing progress in schools, where the Baker clause has seen a change in careers guidance, with learners now receiving more advice about technical routes, with a specific focus on apprenticeships. Whilst it is clear A level and traditional higher education institution (HEI) progression routes remain prioritised, it is an important step that technical routes are given this promotion for pre-16 learners. Despite this, we know there is still more to do to ensure apprenticeships and technical education products are understood and promoted effectively, with access to clear, accessible, information on technical routes being essential to achieving this.
Technical education should be a positive life choice, made by informed individuals who recognise the value of the offer to them. The technical route should sit confidently alongside that of traditional academic progression, broadening the range of viable options that learners might undertake, as dictated by their personal circumstance and preferences.
Technical education is ‘another’ not ‘the other’ choice for learners planning their progression into high skill, high paid, work and we are excited to work closely with UCAS to champion this reality.
Chief Executive Officer, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education
Jennifer Coupland took up post as Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in November 2019. Her previous role was Director of Professional and Technical Education in DfE for three years, where she was responsible for T Level development and delivery, the L3 and below qualifications review and the Higher Technical Reforms.
Prior to that, Jennifer was Acting Chief Executive of the Standards and Testing Agency, where she oversaw the Agency’s work on primary school assessment policy and operational delivery. Before that, she spent three years as the Deputy Director of the joint DfE/BIS Apprenticeships Unit.
Previously Jennifer was the Deputy Director in the Department for Education responsible for the early stages of Traineeships development as well as Raising the Participation Age, careers and NEET policy.
Jennifer began her career in the Employment Service where she ran a benefit section in a local office and delivered a range of programmes to support long term unemployed people into work. Since moving to central Government Jennifer has worked on a number of policy areas including: benefits, schools and post-16 education.