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Government aims to make level 4 and 5 qualifications more popular

Proposed changes to the qualifications that sit between A-levels and university degrees are intended to tackle skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and maths

Level 4 and 5 qualifications could be revamped in England in a government plan to improve their quality and uptake.

The qualifications, typically taken between A-levels and university degrees, will be rebranded as Higher Technical Qualifications and will continue to offer young people technically focused education as an alternative to more traditional routes.

Education secretary Damian Hinds said the government’s aim in rebranding the qualifications is to ensure students know what types of skill they provide and how they reflect the needs of the current employment landscape.

“Employers across the country are crying out for more computer programmers, engineers, electricians and technicians in fields ranging from advanced manufacturing to healthcare,” he said. “But the evidence shows that despite these qualifications putting people in prime position to take advantage of that demand and the opportunities for better wages and better prospects, not enough people know about them.”

Although there has been an increase in the number of people with undergraduate degrees, the government has found businesses are still struggling to find people with the technical skills they need.

The government’s own research has found that people who gain level 4 or 5 qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects earn up to £5,000 a year more than graduates from some universities, but only one in 10 adults across England has a qualification of this type, and about 40% of the qualifications offered have only five or fewer students taking them.

Level 4 and 5 qualifications are geared towards learning subjects such as ICT and digital, construction, engineering, business and creative, but the government found that for ICT and digital in particular, it is hard to gauge how employers feel about candidates with these qualifications because there is already such a wide range of commercial training available in the sector.

As part of the overhaul, the government has proposed a review of level 4 and 5 qualifications to ensure they are high quality, as well as awarding a stamp of approval for Higher Technical Qualifications that provide the skills employers need. There is currently no national assurance in place to signal whether every Higher Technical Qualification actually provides the skills currently needed by employers.

The government will ensure that Higher Technical Qualifications are only available from high-quality further and higher education providers with access to student finance, and will work with employers and career advisers to make people aware of the qualifications and what roles they could lead to.

Read more about the UK’s technical skills

This revamp of level 4 and 5 qualifications includes the introduction of new technically driven T-levels, which are intended as a vocational alternative to A-levels, and an increase in the number of apprenticeships available, both of which, it is hoped, will feed into Higher Technical Qualifications.

For younger learners, the UK’s computing curriculum aims to give young people the skills they need for a future digital workplace, but many believe it is not fit for purpose, and is too inflexible to reflect the change of pace in the tech industry.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the CBI, which predicted almost half of employment will be in management, professional and technical roles by 2025, said it is “vital” for the education system to keep up with the skills demanded by UK businesses.

“It is terrific to see a focus on level 4 and 5 qualifications,” he said. “This ‘missing middle’ has been overlooked for too long, and yet for many employers, it can provide the skills by bridging a gap between A-levels and degrees.”

The government has already been working to review and change education, both at age 16 and post-18, to ensure young people are being trained in skills that will help to fill current skills gaps. An overhaul of STEM-based education across the UK is set out in the UK’s Industrial Strategy, and the launch of the Institute of Coding and the new apprenticeship levy have been steps towards ensuring people are being given the technical skills the UK lacks.

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