Is the world finally ready to embrace the significance of technical and vocational skills and in doing so bump higher education qualifications off their pedestals and out of their ivory towers?


The government of the United Kingdom is certainly addressing this traditional imbalance.


They are introducing a new ‘T-levels’ system that will run alongside the customary ‘A-levels’, with a plan to implement it by 2019. ‘T-levels’ would prepare a student for further study in the vocational sector and a student attaining ‘A-levels’ would qualify to enter a higher education college or university.


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Experts are hoping that technical and vocational qualifications will gain the reputation they deserve and ultimately achieve an ‘equal-footing’ with degrees which are attained in the higher education sector. It is being called the (long-awaited) ‘technical skills revolution’.


To ensure the reputation is indeed deserved and in order to raise the bar, students pursuing technical and vocational education will be exposed to 50% more study. To gain their qualification they will need to have completed 900 hours of training.


The system that exists today in the UK sees 13,000 individual qualifications being awarded in the technical and vocational sector. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of Exchequer, who outlined the new T-levels in his budget speech, said that 13,000 qualifications in the technical sector was confusing to students. The government proposes a dramatic cut, with a focus on just 15.


These 15 credentials will cover catering and hospitality, social care, construction and engineering and manufacturing. The new system is hoping to address a widening skills shortage that some fear could be exacerbated by Britain’s exit from the European Union; a move which has now been passed by the UK Parliament.

Richard Black from the Telegraph writes:

“UK universities receive an additional 15 per cent in funding from the EU and some believe the UK could lose this if Brexit happens. It could also mean academics will struggle to cooperate on research projects. A change in visa arrangements for other European countries may also deter high-caliber academics from joining British universities.”


The UK is also encouraging students to apply for apprenticeships in their chosen industries. The UK government has plans to overhaul and improve the quality of apprenticeships with an apprenticeship levy that will see £2.5 billion making its way into technical and vocational sectors. 


In addition the country is poised to launch the Institute for Apprenticeships in April of 2017. This Institute will ensure that apprenticeships maintain a level of quality, and create pathways which will enable students to progress.


Is less more?

Ireland’s education system is also undergoing change; they are redefining how their higher education system operates. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) of Ireland is reassessing how effective their engineering education and training is to ensure they remain relevant within a global context. Part of this scrutiny also involves refining the number of engineering qualifications that exist.


Dr Graham Love, the new CEO of the HEA, said that it is a challenging time for higher education, but is looking forward to shaping the future of the system.

“The review will examine the current state of engineering education provision in Ireland to establish if it is fit for purpose, efficient and effective and will make recommendations to better meet national skills needs,” the HEA told the media.


The review, according to the HEA, will also suggest new amendments for “apprenticeship models, professional development for working engineers, and teaching methods.” In accordance with Great Britain there is a concerted effort to raise the reputation and appeal of  technical and vocational qualifications.


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The right way forward

Emma Bridgewater, a renowned ceramics manufacturer in the UK, has said that the United Kingdom at large is suffering a skills crisis because the engineering syllabi fail to consider the needs of local students and the manufacturing sector. In an interview with The Guardian, she suggested that courses were designed to appeal to international students.

“A lot of vocational courses around manufacturing are evaporating - we are not training to future captains of the industry. There’s a very significant lack of the right courses being devised. I think that education is responding to the appetite among foreign students to study here.”


The unnatural tug of the higher education sector combined with the tempting foreign student market may have both contributed to the burgeoning skills gap. It is not surprising therefore, that engineering experts are optimistic about the proposed T-levels. The Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders told the media:

“T-Levels could be the answer if they genuinely rival A-Levels in the eyes of parents, teachers and young people. UK society as a whole has been guilty of putting too much emphasis on the academic route - this has made it more difficult for vital sectors like construction and house building to attract the talented new people we need.”



Works Cited

Black, Richard. "​​How Will Brexit Affect British Universities and ​​will EU Students Still Be Able to Study in the UK? ." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 03 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Hickey, Shane. "'T-levels' Aim to Improve Technical Education and Improve UK Productivity." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

"T-Levels Must Match A-Levels." T-Levels Must Match A-Levels. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.