Vocational qualifications: raising the bar

As the demand for high skilled technical employees increases in the UK, we take a look at the growing popularity of vocational qualifications and how government initiatives are raising their profile.

Vocational qualifications
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Over the past few years, the number of vocational qualifications available in the UK has increased dramatically. The UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), has witnessed annual increases of over 4,000 students entering higher education and holding a BTEC qualification in recent years.The increases have largely been driven by businesses’ concerns about a lack of skills in the workplace and this increased demand has put vocational qualifications firmly in the spotlight.

Filling the skills gap

For a number of years, employers and the government have believed in the potential of vocational qualifications to fill the skills gap but the programme has been repeatedly dogged by criticisms surrounding quality.A review of technical education, which was commissioned by the British Government in 2016 , said that vocational qualifications needed “a decisive move away from the current technical education system which is failing to develop the skills our industry needs.” The report, by a panel chaired by Lord Sainsbury went on to highlight the importance of government investment in high-quality technical education, counselling that it “will pay handsome dividends in the form of increased national prosperity and improved social mobility.”In the 2017 Budget, UK chancellor of the exchequer, Phillip Hammond, renewed the government’s commitment to developing vocational qualifications as he promised £500m per year funding for technical qualifications in a drive to make vocational qualifications equal to A levels.It is all part of the government’s focus on closing the ‘productivity gap’ between the UK and other OECD countries. The UK is currently languishing in 16th place (out of 20 OECD countries) for technical education.Said Lord Sainsbury, “Our international competitors recognised long ago that investing in technical education is essential to enhancing national productivity. But it is also essential if we are to equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to obtain rewarding and skilled employment in the future.”

What do the reforms involve?

Aside from the numbers – the government is striving to create three million new apprentices by 2020 – the major overhaul involves distilling the current 20,000 courses provided by 160 organisations down to just 15 technical pathways for post-16 education.Within the new technical route, there will be two options: either a two-year, college-based programme with compulsory work experience or an employment-based programme such as an apprenticeship.The amount of training will be increased by more than half to over 900 hours a year and will include high quality work placements.Following this students will go on to either level four or five higher technical education programmes, degree apprenticeships or higher apprenticeships. In some cases there may also be possibilities for students to bridge the gap into an undergraduate degree.All of the college-based programmes will include a core of English, maths and digital skills.Students will first be able to access the new programmes from September 2019. 

The value of vocational qualifications

A survey of 2000 employers by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) in July 2017 found that 65 per cent of employers who recruit staff to skilled or supervisory roles consider it essential for applicants to hold a relevant vocational or technical qualification. This proportion was higher than employers who required applicants to hold A levels (48 per cent) for those type of roles. There is no doubt that employers value vocational training and are increasingly desiring employees who have technical skills, not just academic knowledge.Nick Boles, who served as the government’s minister of state for skills from 2014–16, said, “Bringing training for young people and adults in line with the needs of business and industry will drive up productivity, which has lagged behind in the country even as economic growth and employment have improved.“Not giving young people the right opportunities to gain the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed for the world of work represents a waste not only of human capital but of enthusiasm, of potential, of the life chances that their parents and teachers have worked so hard to provide.”

Large organisations embrace vocational training

In September 2016, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) welcomed 31 apprentices across five of its office in England, having launched the recruitment process in June. This is the first time the organisation has embarked on such a large-scale apprenticeship scheme.“We want to provide individuals with a genuine opportunity to improve their lives by offering them an alternative career path from the traditional university route,” says Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s chief operating officer.In February 2016, telecoms giant BT created around 1,400 new apprenticeship and graduate jobs in the UK, furthering its commitment to equipping the next generation with the skills and training needed to meet the challenges the UK faces in the development of new digital technologies.“Technology is changing all the time, and companies need to support and train young people to develop the skills required for successful careers in essential areas such as science, engineering and IT,” says Gavin Patterson, chief executive of BT.
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