Education secretary plans to promote Stem-related courses, hoping to overcome middle-class snobbery
The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has said he wants to overcome the snobbery of middle-class parents towards studying advanced technical qualifications, as the government unveils a seal of approval designed to improve the status and visibility of such courses.
The Department for Education is to announce a new category of higher technical qualifications (HTQs) as a quality assurance mark for courses such as digital engineering, to cut through the profusion of certificates, diplomas and foundation degrees on offer for school-leavers.
Hinds said England’s workforce lagged behind other OECD and European countries in technical qualifications – held by only one in 10 adults in England, compared with up to one in four in Germany – which he blamed on “a mixture of low awareness and complexity in the market” as well as cultural attitudes.
“Fundamentally, I do think in public policy terms, in parliament, in the media, in general, there is a danger we do talk about technical and vocational education in terms of other people’s children, which is something you don’t get in Germany,” Hinds said.
Asked if he thought middle-class “snobbery” worked in favour of universities, Hinds agreed. “If you look at the UK internationally, we aren’t short of people doing degrees, compared with other leading nations, but we are short of people doing these kinds of high-level qualifications,” he said.
“We know that the shortage of higher level qualifications account for a lot of the strain in the employment market, for technician roles. And we know from an individual’s point of view, a good qualification in Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering or maths] can boost your earnings more than doing many degrees. And in terms of the time taken, you can do one of these qualifications often in less time than it takes to do a traditional bachelors degree.
“But to promote it we need to make sure it’s understandable and everyone can have confidence in the quality of what’s on offer.
“It’s very possible that there are people currently doing university degrees who could be doing one of these qualifications instead.”
Asked if he would be happy for his own children to take one of the new HTQs, Hinds said: “Yes I would. My eldest is nine, I should mention. I’d be very impressed if she wanted to at this point. But when the time comes, absolutely.”
Research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research earlier this year found that workers with higher vocational qualifications in Stem subjects earned £5,000 more than graduates from most British universities by the age of 30, while in construction, social sciences and business their average earnings were close to those of many graduates.
The HTQ status will be given to what are known as level four and five qualifications, which sit between A-levels at level three and bachelor degrees at level six, and are offered by further education colleges, universities and the proposed institutes of technology.
There are as many as 4,000 level four and five courses offered in England, but 40% have five or fewer students taking them.
The government hopes to have NTQ status established by 2022, in time for the first cohort of school-leavers gaining T-levels, the vocational complement to A-levels that are to be taught from next year.
But Hinds said that further development was waiting on the outcome of this year’s spending review, and in particular the government’s response to the report on post-age 18 education in England conduced by Philip Augar.
Augar’s review called for a substantial injection of resources into further education and training, coupled with cuts to university income from tuition fees.
Mark Dawe, the chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said he was sceptical of the benefits of the qualification revamp without further support.
“Until some action is taken along the lines of the Augar recommendations, many young people are going to be sucked on to university courses that don’t offer them the opportunities they deserve,” Dawe said.
“We can create a whole suite of qualifications and it won’t make a blind bit of difference. We have seen the incredible growth of higher level apprenticeships and that is because both young people and employers see the real benefits of working while training and applying the learning.”