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Higher Technical Education Reform

Volume 663: debated on Monday 8 July 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the consultation on higher technical education in England at levels 4 and 5, which we have launched today.

Over the past year, the Government have undertaken a comprehensive review of classroom-based higher technical education, which provides an alternative to apprenticeships at levels 4 and 5. Qualifications at this level sit between level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels and the new T-levels, and level 6 qualifications, such as bachelor’s degrees. As part of the review, we gathered evidence and listened to many further and higher education providers, awarding organisations, employers and others. The consultation launched today sets out our proposals to address the multiple related challenges and opportunities that we have identified through the review.

We want higher technical education to be a prestigious choice that delivers the skills that employers need, that encourages more students to continue to study after A-levels or T-levels and that attracts people of all ages who are looking to upskill and retrain. The proposals in the consultation are the next step in our programme to reform technical education. We want to build on the introduction of T-levels and our investment in apprenticeships as part of our modern industrial strategy to improve productivity and help people to progress in their work and in their lives.

The Government’s review of higher technical education found that there is growing employer demand for the skills provided by higher technical education, but we also found that the uptake of higher technical qualifications is low by international standards, has fallen over time, and is low by comparison with other levels of education. Some higher technical qualifications and courses are well recognised and valued by employers and students, but overall there is low awareness and varying quality, with the range of terminology, qualifications and provider types creating a complex picture that is hard for employers and students to navigate.

The starting point for our reforms is to raise the prestige of higher technical education more widely and strengthen its value to employers by putting their needs and quality first. Improving quality now—to demonstrate the value of higher technical qualifications—will lead to increased uptake of higher technical education in the future. To do this, we are proposing an approach to make it clearer which higher technical qualifications provide the skills that employers want. This will be delivered through the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, signalling which qualifications deliver the knowledge, skills and behaviours set out in employer-led national standards. As we want qualifications at this level to be understood and recognised as high quality by employers, their involvement in qualification design is crucial, so they will be at the centre of our reforms.

Alongside our proposals on qualifications, we also want to grow high-quality higher technical education provision, boost leadership and encourage greater specialisation and close collaboration so that providers can more effectively and efficiently respond to the local skills needs of employers. We will do that by working with the Office for Students to demonstrate the quality of providers, so that there is more high-quality provision delivered across higher and further education, including through our flagship employer-led national colleges and institutes of technology. The Office for Students will develop a set of technical ongoing registration conditions specifically for providers delivering courses leading to higher technical qualifications. These will align with the model used to assess the quality of applications for the institutes of technology programme and act as a precursor to access full public funding for approved higher technical qualification provision.

Finally, we want to make higher technical education a positive and more popular choice by raising awareness and understanding of the new suite of qualifications approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in colleges and universities and among potential students and, of course, their employers. We will improve the information, advice and guidance available to potential students and boost employer knowledge of how these qualifications can address their skills needs. At the same time, we will improve the accessibility of higher technical education through flexible delivery and improve signposting of financial support, so that as many students as possible have the chance to get the qualifications that are right for them.

We know that change will not happen overnight. Higher technical education has been an area of relative neglect over decades, and we want to work with everyone who wants to improve higher technical education. I strongly encourage everyone with an interest to contribute to the debate so that we can build the world-class technical education system that our students deserve and our country needs. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement following on from the media coverage today.

Last year, the Secretary of State made a speech at Battersea power station, which foreshadowed the Government’s announcement of this review today. Since 2010, Labour has said repeatedly that vocational and technical education must be put on an equal footing with academic routes to get the high-skilled workforce that we need. That imperative, given Brexit, has now accelerated, so we welcome the Government’s statement, but while we welcome the words, a lot of the details are still lacking. Will this be an entirely new suite of qualifications, or a rebadging of existing ones? Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are unveiling a plan to rebrand the existing qualifications rather than actually delivering meaningful policy change, and where do degree apprenticeships fit in with this?

The Department’s own policy paper acknowledges that Britain’s departure from the EU and the end of free movement may also accelerate demands for higher technical skills, so does the Minister agree that the reckless no-deal policies advocated by both candidates for his party’s leadership would damage our economy and create even greater skill shortages? Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has said that

“we’re nervous that the focus on reforming qualifications … could divert attention from the post-18 review recommendations”,

which Mark Dawe at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers has echoed. Can the Minister tell the sector which of these recommendations his Department will implement?

All year, Members from across the House have been telling the Department that FE funding has fallen to critical levels. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found it was £3 billion down in real terms between 2010 and 2017-18. Will the Minister commit urgently to a funding uplift to ensure those world-class colleges and providers can produce the skilled workforce we need? Is the Department proposing a national approval of qualifications, and will those qualifications be given additional funding?

The Minister talks about the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and of the Office for Students in his consultation, but with resources already stretched and concerns from the sector about delays in standard approvals and registration, how does the Minister envisage the IfA taking on this extra responsibility? What additional resources will be allocated to it? Will the IfA or the OfS be in the driving seat on delivery?

The Minister said that improving information, advice and guidance would be crucial to deliver the skills base we need, but how does the Department intend to do this with no extra resources available? This morning, the Secretary of State told The Guardian that he would be happy for his own son, aged nine, to take one of the new HTQs. Is it therefore not imperative that we start looking at and talking about information, advice and guidance in schools at a much earlier age—at just that sort of age—to spark inspiration and aspiration in technical careers?

What will be the status of the qualifications getting swept up in these changes? Will the Department ensure that qualifications are not just future-proofed but back-proofed? I ask because the Department tells us that mature students make up the majority of current higher technical students, and in 2015 over half of all HT students were studying on a part-time basis. Can we be clear that these qualifications will not be junked by the Government and employers if they have to retrain?

The Labour party has been developing our national education service and lifelong learning commission with the principle of progression at the heart of skills policy. To do that, we must have a proper feeder process for social mobility and social justice. This comes substantially through level 2 apprenticeships, but we have seen a 21% drop in them recently. How will the Department address that and get people to these higher-level qualifications? The Secretary of State says that students will move on from T-levels to a higher technical qualification, but can the Minister or the Secretary of State, who have failed so far to outline how students will transition from GCSEs to T-levels, tell us how students will move on from T-levels to HTQs?

A review of these qualifications is welcome, but given existing take-up failure with advanced learner loans, there is no guarantee it will be a game changer. How will the Government make it possible for institutions to get the staff they need to deliver more level 4 and level 5 qualifications? If T-levels are going to be a feeder into them, who is going to teach them: existing FE, school, college or training staff, recent providers, or perhaps graduates doing crash courses in T-level teaching?

This announcement will require a big infusion of money beyond the existing £500 million by 2022 and a whole new approach to prioritising continuous professional development for FE staff, which the Government have consistently ignored, will be needed. The Department’s policy paper says that providers struggle to recruit and retain staff, so when will the Department address the fact that FE lecturers and other staff have seen their pay fall by thousands of pounds a year in real terms since 2010 and are still being paid thousands of pounds less than their colleagues teaching in schools?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He asked a number of questions. I will attempt to address most of them, and if I do not I will happily write to him after this statement. He asked whether there will continue to be one type of recognised qualification at this level. Of course, he will know that there are individual examples of high-quality qualifications that are well recognised by employers—pharmacy, for example. These qualifications cater for a diverse set of situations and students, including people from a range of backgrounds studying for various purposes and a large volume of adult learners. We propose to maintain this diverse and competitive market through an opt-in system that enables more than one qualification to be approved against a given occupational standard. We want all higher technical qualifications that provide the knowledge, skills and behaviours that employers need to get the recognition they deserve. This is in contrast to the position for T-levels, where, as recommended by the Independent Panel on Technical Education, only one qualification is approved per occupation or group of occupations.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of wider funding to deliver reforms. Of course we recognise that financial arrangements, or incentives, are important in delivering these reforms. We want to ensure that public funding for the delivery of higher technical education is focused on providers that meet the Office for Students’s proposed technical ongoing registration conditions.

We will be considering funding proposals as part of the spending review. The hon. Gentleman has heard that from the Dispatch Box on many occasions, but it is an important consideration. We are also seeking views through the consultation on how we can support providers to develop their workforce and engage with employers through non-financial incentives. I remind the Opposition that the funding that is available for investment in apprenticeships will reach over £2.5 billion in 2019-20—double what it was in 2010-11. So more money is going into the system for these apprenticeships.

On the hon. Gentleman’s slightly frivolous point about the negotiations with the EU, we do need to deliver a Brexit by 31 October. I am surprised that the Opposition have changed their position on this considering how many of their heartlands in the north feel about that issue, but I will leave it there. We have made no-deal preparations in the Department and I feel confident that we will be ready if that is the position—not that we want it to be. We want a deal, of course.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I very much agree that we have to make sure that employers, families and those who might take these qualifications will understand that we are making the greatest advance perhaps not in the last 70 years—perhaps in the last 110 years, since people like William Garnett started getting technical colleges going all over the country.

I hope that we will avoid the mistakes that were made a few years ago in the recognition of training centres, where Worthing College and Northbrook College, which is now part of the Met, in my constituency were disqualified from recognition because some stupid question had a tick-box exercise where, if the right word was not included, the college was disqualified. In the same way, no college in Birmingham was approved. That had to be put right. We have to watch what the apparent invigilators are doing and make sure that they see common sense in all they do.

Lastly, my hon. Friend’s advisers ought to look at the words by Graham Hasting-Evans of the charity NOCN in FE Week today about the importance of making sure that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has the capacity to do the job it is being asked to do.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and advice that we make sure that this is not a tick-box exercise. I will certainly look at the words of Graham Hasting-Evans on the capacity of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. We obviously want to get this right through the consultation.

The Minister acknowledged that take-up of higher technical qualifications is lower in this country compared with our international competitors. I commend him for the statement and its curriculum objectives, but would he acknowledge that the low take-up is not just a result of the curriculum but is about a deep-seated cultural resistance to young people going into technical education? It needs buy-in from parents, teachers and the careers service, and the capacity of further education to deliver. Will he undertake to ensure that those issues are addressed as well?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he has been a passionate advocate for technical qualifications for many years, since before my time in this place. I served under him when he was Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and he advocated a similar view then. He is right to talk about the aspirational value of technical qualifications. Part of the reason for the move towards degree apprenticeships was to begin to deliver that aspirational value to not only potential students but their parents. I take on board everything he says. He is right that, if we look at the take-up, something like one in 10 adults in this country holds these qualifications, versus one in five in countries such as Germany. Some will say that Germany has a very different economic model, but the evidence suggests that employers in our country have a real appetite for these qualifications and, therefore, it is only right that we do this, and do it well.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. John Ruskin said that the value of learning is not in what one gains from it, but what one becomes by it. People, through the acquisition of practical accomplishments and skills, grow and add to the nation’s productivity. I simply say to the Minister these two things. First, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) is right about the pathway from entry-level practical skills through to higher-level qualifications. Secondly, good existing qualifications such as the HND and BTEC must be valued, because they are well understood by employers, learners and providers alike. I hope that, in this review, we will not end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and we will take account of all the good work that is done in our FE sector.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to warn the House that we do not want to lose excellent qualifications that are clearly recognised. I hope that my comments in response to the hon. Member for Blackpool South reassured him.

I welcome the Government’s efforts on higher technical education and their attempt to provide different qualifications as alternatives to university education. Renaming this form of education is intended to assist employers to understand the qualification. However, it may cause greater confusion for employers, because naming them “technical” qualifications does not take into account the fact that some subjects studied at this level are in the creative arts and are not defined as technical. Has the Minister taken that into account?

The hon. Lady raises an important point—we must never forget what an important export and potential employer the creative arts are, and our position in the world in that sector. She is right to raise that, and it is something we have to be cognisant of.

I very much welcome the work that the Department is doing in this important area of education. Last Friday, I visited Midland Group Training Services—MGTS—in Redditch, which has just been awarded a contract from Morrisons to train all its food technology engineers across the country. That is a major coup for our area. Does the Minister agree that it is really important that technical education responds to digital and creative needs, which are ever changing? How will we meet that challenge in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for her excellent question, and I congratulate MGTS on its contract. She rightly raises the ever faster moving nature of the economy and its changing shape, including some technological disruption. That is precisely why we want employers to co-create these technical qualifications. I do not think that the Government are able, on their own, to move to where the markets are. Businesses understand that better than anyone else, which is why we want them to be at the heart of this.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) about how we encourage more people to participate in technical education and obtain the qualifications, what specifically does the Minister think we need to do about the fact that we still do not have enough girls and women taking up technical subjects? We are missing a huge pool of very good people who could make a career in technical subjects.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I spent a year as David Cameron’s apprenticeship champion, looking at the introduction of the levy and making sure that we would deliver that well, which I think we did. She is quite right to say that we need to encourage more young females to think about technical qualifications and of course STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—which is dear to my heart as a chemical engineer. I certainly think that the best way forward is to have more female role models engaging with schools, making sure that children are exposed to the potential for a career from technical education.

Technical qualifications are absolutely vital, and I welcome the Government’s move down this road. In South Dorset, or Dorset as a whole, we need a centre of excellence in which these technical qualifications can be taught. Weymouth College, on which all the young in South Dorset and around rely, simply does not have the facilities. What we would like, please, is a new centre, and that costs £18 million.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his rather opportunist question. I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who has responsibility for further education, is cognisant of the fact that South Dorset needs an upgrade of its college, or a new college altogether. I suspect that will be above her pay grade as well, but I think I will leave it there.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the final question asked by the shadow Minister, my fellow Fylde coast MP, which was about the challenges in the FE sector in recruiting and retaining staff? I know from my recent visit to Lancaster & Morecambe College that FE colleges are really struggling to compete with other potential employers, which are not just schools in our area, but higher education institutions. What will the Minister do on that, and how can he address these concerns of the FE sector, in which pay has been held back since 2010?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I visit FE colleges because of my portfolio—they do brilliant work on supported internships for students with special educational needs and disabilities—and I have to say that I hear a similar story about the financial challenges, which is where all this sits. I hope that from my earlier comments, and what she will have heard from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who has responsibility for further education, she will see that we are very much cognisant of the fact that more investment needs to go into FE. We have a spending review coming up, and my right hon. Friend will be putting her best foot forward in that negotiation. This is obviously to do with the challenge of finance in the FE sector.

My hon. Friend will have seen the announcement last week by Jaguar Land Rover of a massive new investment in the Castle Bromwich branch near my constituency. It is a real vote of confidence in our nation, despite Brexit. However, JLR needs an enhanced skills base. Does he agree that raising awareness of any new qualifications is key, so that they are not just alphabet soup, and so that we break down barriers of prejudice about non-degree qualifications? No more targets—let us respect, as a society, technical qualifications.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, the JLR announcement was equally welcome in Stratford-on-Avon, because many of my constituents work at the head office in Gaydon, where, as JLR recognised in its announcement, a lot of its engineering know-how and innovation are based. He is right to remind the House that if we obsess over a target for 50% of young people to go to university, we end up neglecting the FE sector, and that is something we in this Government will not do.

I welcome the Minister’s clarification that there is no desire to throw the baby out with the bathwater and that high-quality qualifications such as BTECs and HNDs, which have served generations of students well, have nothing to fear from this review; indeed, they may well do well from it. How will the Government ensure that this review builds on the good work that the Augar review did in recognising the need for growing capacity in further education if it is to deliver effectively for the future?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am grateful for his comments about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The consultation and the eventual infrastructure, if I may describe it in that way, should and will fit seamlessly with the Augar review and whatever we do on HE.

This morning, I was at General Electric’s transformer factory in Stafford. It is the only manufacturer of large-scale transformers in the UK, and clearly higher technical education and apprenticeships are vital for GE. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the situation for companies do not pay the apprenticeship levy because they are below the threshold? Those small and medium-sized enterprises are absolutely vital to our economy. Since the introduction of the levy, has there been greater uptake of apprenticeships among such companies?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is right to focus his concern on the non-levy paying business community. We dropped the contribution from 10% to 5% to make sure that those SMEs can feel confident in participating and in taking on apprenticeships. We continue to monitor their progress.