New world-class qualification


It is time for English higher education to put its faith in T levels. With a “TL” pin badge consistently shining on his lapel, England’s secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi, has been a reliable and vocal supporter of T levels, the new technical post-16 qualifications.

In November, he told the House of Commons: “I am a firm believer in T levels…I want them to become as famous as A levels, and I want to ensure that we get them right.” In February, he wrote that T levels “will enable as many young people as possible to get specialised training that is going to set them up for successful careers”.

As the CEO of an organisation that has championed technical training for more than 170 years, I’m delighted to see these qualifications in the spotlight. From the Skills for Jobs White Paper through to the Levelling Up White Paper, skills and further education have been everywhere in public policy, and it's about time.

T levels support a blend of high-quality classroom learning with on-the-job experience. They are sometimes painted as a hybrid between A levels and existing forms of further education, such as apprenticeships. But this overlooks the unique way in which T levels are developed, hand in hand with employers, to meet the skills needs of key sectors and provide learners with a host of transferable skills.

But what about university admission? By design, T levels can provide students with the same number of Ucas points as achieving three A*s at A level. Therefore, they will become a crucial way for students to progress into higher education, apprenticeships and the workplace.

Recent Ucas data confirm that nearly 500 T level students currently have a live university application, a figure expected to continue rising throughout the remainder of the cycle. This may sound a small number, but it is just the start. These students are part of the first-ever T-level cohort. The Department for Education always intended year-on-year growth in university admissions as the variety of T-level pathways increases and more post-16 providers come on board to deliver them.

Therefore, it is crucial for universities to recognise that this trickle of brilliant students will likely become a flood in years to come. Luckily, many already have. Now 119 universities accept at least one T-level pathway, including the Russell Group universities of Exeter, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and York. But for T levels to be a success, every higher education institution needs to actively encourage applicants from these courses.
It is very often said that we need to tackle educational snobbery and the gap between vocational and academic education. Though I completely agree with this, I think we need to go one step further and look to build an integrated education system in which students can easily transition from further to higher education and vice versa. This is a necessity in the current jobs market.

There is so much crossover between vocational and academic learning and one can’t really exist without the other. We need to stop pitting them against each other and value both in equal measure for what they bring to the individual, society and the economy.
Affording learners this level of flexibility would also allow educational institutions to benefit from each other’s expertise and give universities access to a diverse talent pool of students – of all ages – who may not otherwise have considered higher education. Moreover, it would plug universities into a wider network of specialist technical colleges that can augment their work and research. And it could help link them up with employers and businesses, which can provide exciting opportunities for students both during and after their studies.

We are undeniably in the middle of an exciting period of transition in English education. The Department for Education’s review of level 3 qualifications, implementation of lifelong learning and changes to higher education prompted by the Augar review are all going to take a long time to fully implement. But a core part of this change is the continued growth and success of T levels.

“For the new technical qualification to be a success, every university must encourage applicants from these courses,” says David Gallagher, CEO of NCFE, a major technical and vocational awarding organisation that has been selected as the delivery partner for nine T-level pathways, in a diverse range of sectors – from digital to healthcare and early years. The feedback received on these courses so far has been hugely positive – from teachers, learners and the employers who have supported us closely in the development of these courses. Ultimately, all this is about ensuring that young people are equipped with the skills they need to fulfil their potential – and T levels are already showing that they are an important part of the mix.

Even if university leaders can’t get their hands on a T levels pin badge just yet, they can help champion this next generation of world-class qualifications to ensure they are a long-term success.

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