In order to meet the needs and circumstances of a diverse range of learners, we need to have a more diverse range of options. That perhaps sounds perverse when UCAS lists over 35,000 undergraduate courses from Animation to Zoology for entry in 2023/24. But look closely and more than three quarters of these courses are bachelor’s degrees. Three years of full-time study may be neither possible nor appropriate for some learners who want to progress to higher education, but alternative options are relatively few and this needs to change.
Research for the Sutton Trusti found that most young people (55.8% in 2014/15) attend a university less than 55 miles away from their home address. The availability of higher education — and the existence of ‘cold spots’ — clearly matters for young people who need or prefer to remain local. More than 150 further education colleges offer higher education (HE) coursesii and between them provide a significant proportion of Level 4 and 5 HE options often at lower fee levels than Level 6 degreesiii, but this provision is frequently overlooked. Greater awareness, recognition and support for college-based HE is vital for both increasing and widening participation in the future.
Young people can only make good choices if they have access to good information and guidance. Following extensive international research and stakeholder engagement, in 2014 the Gatsby Foundation recommended a framework of activity that would transform the careers guidance system for 11-18-year-olds in England. These eight ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’iv became a statutory requirement for state-funded institutions in 2017. Since then, increasing numbers of young people have had multiple experiences of post-16 and post-18 options, co-ordinated by the work of a trained Careers Leader within their school or college and supported by a national infrastructure of Careers Hubs.v Backed up by new ‘provider access’ legislation, continued implementation of the Benchmarks up to and beyond 2030 will mean that whatever their background, attainment level or ambitions, every young person will hear about a variety of potential jobs, apprenticeships, and the full range of further study available to them at 18.
As well as career guidance at school or college, we know that parents are hugely important in supporting young people’s thinking about their options.vi This is why in 2021 Gatsby launched the Talking Futures projectvii — providing support and encouragement directly to parents and guardians to enable confident career conversations with their children, as well as working with the Careers and Enterprise Company to help educators work better with their parent communities.
Job opportunities and salaries will vary according to where young people live, but a ‘good job’ is more than just money — it includes being able to use the skills and knowledge that they have gained, and being valued for the ideas that they bring. In 2016 the Independent Panel on Technical Education, led by David Sainsbury who established the Gatsby Foundation, recommended the development of high-quality technical education pathways into occupations at all skills levels.viii The options in these pathways needed to be designed with and for employers so that learners could be confident that what they learned — whether as an apprentice or on a classroom-based course —would be valued in the workplace. Since 2016 we have seen the introduction of T-levels and Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) in England which, alongside advanced and higher apprenticeships, offer quality-assured routes from school, college or university into a good job.
By 2026 all currently planned T-levelsix will have started teaching, and we can expect thousands of 18-year-olds to be leaving schools and colleges across England with these technical qualifications. At the time of writing 86 Higher Education providers in the UK have confirmed that a T-level will be suitable for entry to at least one of their coursesx, which demonstrates both the breadth and depth of learning that T-levels are providing. We can therefore expect that a small proportion of the million UCAS applicants will hold these qualifications and have their sights set on graduate level jobs.
Over the next four years more Level 4 and 5 courses will be approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education as meeting the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed by employers for occupations such as software developer, nursing associate, audiovisual technician and financial adviser.xi Just like degrees, these HTQs will also give students essential skills in problem-solving, teamwork and communication, and many will include work-based learning. But unless there is sufficient investment and momentum in raising awareness of HTQs to the same level as degree courses among students, parents, teachers and careers advisers, many young people in 2030 and beyond will miss out on the career advantages they will offer.
Between now and 2030 governments face serious challenges contending with the rising cost of high-quality post-18 education at a time of increasing demand. Part of the solution will be to avoid spreading expenditure too thinly, and focus funding where it can make most difference. For example, Institutes of Technology (IoTs)xii — close partnerships between further education colleges, universities and STEM-based employers — are just emerging onto the landscape in England, using capital funding from the Government to create environments where students and apprentices will be able to learn on industry-grade equipment, and where local businesses will be supported to enhance the high-skilled jobs they are able to offer in their communities. Investment and curriculum provision is shared across IoT partners based on what they do best, and each IoT has a different set of specialisms according to regional labour market needs. IoTs and the higher education and apprenticeships they offer to students of all ages will need continued investment to maintain the quality of their provision, but they represent one way that limited funding can be distributed according to need and potential impact.
Young people applying to higher education during this decade will have experienced significant disruption to their education and home lives from the Covid pandemic — we owe it to them to plan for their success not just their participation. Offering them high-quality courses aimed at their entry to the labour market and available close to home will be integral to that success.
Director of Education Programmes, Gatsby Foundation
Ginny has led Gatsby's work supporting higher education for the last 7 years, as part of the transformation of the technical education system in England conceived in 2016 by the Independent Panel on Technical Education led by David Sainsbury. She has over 20 years of experience in education policy and projects, and most recently has been working with the Department for Education on the introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications - including commissioning foundational research on the ‘missing middle’ of higher technical education in England - and advising the emerging national network of Institutes of Technology.