Credit: University of Salford

Tech-levels: the answer to the UK 'skills crisis'?

New vocational qualifications are being launched in subjects from 'Business Marketing' to 'IT User Support' - but will they cut the mustard?

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

Ah, skills. We are constantly told the UK is facing a ‘crisis’ and an ‘emergency’, and now exam board AQA is promising (not for the first time) to tackle the ‘shortage’ in those qualities that employers just can’t seem to find in potential staff.

It has unveiled seven new vocational ‘Tech-levels’, which 16-19 year-old students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be able to take from this academic year. Or rather re-announced them, given most students will have made up their minds what they were studying a few months ago, rather than being confronted with the new options when they went back to school or college this week.

Pupils can now study IT networking, IT programming, IT user support,
business marketing, power network engineering, design engineering and mechatronic engineering (described by Manchester University as ‘the marriage of mechanical engineering with smart electronics’.

They’ll get 280 UCAS points for top grades, supposedly equivalent to two A*s at A level. AQA predicts the Tech-levels, which will also include cyber security and entertainment technology (i.e. video game development) from next year, will be on offer in 200 ‘centres’ (colleges, of which there are 382 in the UK, and the like) from 2016.

On the plus side, big-name companies including Siemens, Toshiba and Microsoft have helped develop the qualifications. AQA said the qualifications are part of its ‘response to the 2011 Wolf Report, which said that many vocational courses were failing to help students' career prospects.’ So involving employers to address that glaring problem is clearly A Good Idea (the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s involvement with the business marketing course one is therefore less heartening).

But qualifications, both vocational and academic, have been rebooted and fiddled with every year or so for what seems like forever. The obvious question, then, is why this should be any different.

Moreover, the government has been talking about Tech-levels for the last couple of years, and has said current qualifications ranging from diplomas in fish management to BTECs in floristry can be included under the new moniker. So the label ‘Tech-levels’ doesn’t actually address the confusing array of vocational courses on offer.

But it is undeniable that UK plc needs more software developers and engineers, while Brits could do with more training that actually leads to employment. If these courses do really help fix that, then all power to them and the students taking them. And, if they do, only then will we start banishing the snobbishness associated with vocational training (and, MT hopes rather folornly, all buzzword-laden talk of skills crises). In the meantime, if companies aren't happy with said training, they should make like the Germans and invest in more apprenticeships to build their own.

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