CEO blog: Sub-degree HE - exploring myths and opportunities

11 Apr 2019

MillionPlus Chief Executive Dr Greg Walker writes on the myths and misunderstandings surrounding sub-degree higher education provision at universities and how the government could increase uptake of key Level 4 and 5 qualifications.

One of the positive aspects of the Augar Review has been to shine the light on sub-degree Level 4 and 5 higher education (HE). This is a little talked about area of provision for universities, colleges and other providers. These levels of qualifications and training are commonly referred to as ‘technical education’ though I’d argue strongly that all work-focused and occupationally related higher education, including at degree level (level 6 and beyond), should be considered to be technical in this broad sense.

Misunderstandings and Myths

Yet discussion concerning Level 4 and 5 HE has been hindered by misunderstandings and myths about what this form of higher education is and who provides it. This confusion was on display last week when positive data on the earnings of those in their late 20s with sub-degree qualifications was published by the Centre for Vocational Education (CVER). The report itself was useful, but the press release and corresponding media coverage (doubtless unintentionally) garbled the true picture by perpetuating myths about Level 4 and 5 HE, stating that these were qualifications provided by colleges and only mentioning universities in relation to full degrees.

The Department for Education’s review of Level 4 and 5 HE provision has helpfully highlighted the facts and figures in this area. Everyone agrees there is scope to expand this sub-degree HE space in the future, though there is disagreement as to whether to achieve this by increasing access among people who never progress beyond Level 3 qualifications, such as A Levels or BTECs (‘levelling up’), or by reducing access to the number of students studying for degrees, as some of the tabloid press argue (‘levelling down’).

Not challenging these misunderstandings and myths has led to ‘unicorn’-inspired policy options. These promise a lot for employers or learners but are based on an illusory understanding. The solution lies in far simpler, straightforward approaches that will increase support for these levels of learning from employers and uptake from learners.

Qualifications at levels 4 and 5 are not just ‘technical education’. They are work-focused ‘higher education’. Higher Nationals and Foundation degrees, for instance, are recognised as higher education qualifications and they must therefore have a substantive educational element to them. They are not simply training for a specific job role – they include underpinning knowledge and understanding that enables the student to perceive how a job role might evolve in the face of automation or future technological change – an important advantage and value-add in these qualifications.

There is a view that these qualifications are only provided by colleges. This is patently untrue: in 2017-18 there were no less than 135,670 students undertaking “other undergraduate” qualifications at universities in the UK, such as Higher Nationals, Foundation degrees and Professional Graduate Certificates in Education.

Students are not being pushed towards bachelors’ degrees and away from sub-degree qualifications by universities. There has been a lack of growth of Level 4 and 5 provision, but the reasons are multitude. Students see value in a full degree including the recognition this qualification gives them with employers and wider society. It is also only degrees, after all, that are recognised internationally as full HE qualifications.

Since 2014, the government has encouraged employers to invest in apprenticeships, primarily through the levy policy, which means they are no longer prompting new or existing employees to undertake Level 4 and 5 courses, but apprenticeship standards which may or may not include a qualification.

The introduction of the high fees regime in England in 2012 hit Level 4 and 5 study particularly as these qualifications have traditionally been studied on a part-time basis, either through employer-sponsorship or by the student paying the course costs themselves. Part-time HE study has declined by over 50% since 2012.

Look for solutions, not panaceas

The panaceas that policymakers might be tempted to opt for include that Level 4 and 5 higher education could be a magic bullet for lower cost provision for students, shifting provision down from degree level to sub-degree level. But the money saved would be paltry in the scheme of things, while disregarding the important fact that the UK is not ahead of Western nations in the proportion of adults who participate in HE overall. In fact, we are still slightly below the OECD average (p.10).

Government claims we need a new range of ‘higher technical’ qualifications in this space. Yet it is not clear if these untested qualifications would provide a form of work-focused education that is grounded in knowledge, equipping students with the understanding and skills that would serve them well over a career. In the long run, this will provide value for money as it may reduce the need for more frequent retraining. Students in sub-degree HE generally benefit from the educational element enabling then to adapt their practice when technology inevitably moves on.

The third blind alley is to put in place a minimum grade threshold for degree study that would force students without three Ds at A Level (or equivalent) toward a Level 4 or 5 qualification by blocking them from accessing a student loan for degree study. As I have argued before, all this will mean is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will hit a financial ceiling of aspiration, while 18-year-olds from better-off families will pay the fees upfront (or via a private loan).

There are, instead, two potential solutions to this policy dilemma. First, the government should allow employers to use their apprenticeship levy contribution to support their staff through a Foundation degree or Higher National qualification, if preferred, over an apprenticeship standard. Flexing the system in this way would boost the uptake of these important routes to high-level skills.

Second, we should address the challenge of recovering the lost ground for part-time HE study for mature students. This should be done by more flexible rules for equivalent and lower qualifications and by providing maintenance grant support for part-time students.


Sub-degree HE is an important part of the landscape for work-related study at universities and colleges in England. If we want to improve opportunities for people to take up these qualifications, we will need to have a clear-headed view as to where these qualifications fit into the ecosystem of HE provision. Myths and panaceas need play no part in this view.