T Levels are being designed to feed the skills revolution and meet the needs of the future economy. But for some, there is confusion over their role in the wider skills system, particularly one whose vocational education is so commonly associated with apprenticeships and their recent reforms. So, what do T Levels mean for universities, businesses, and collaboration?

The first three T levels – covering digital production, design and development; design, surveying and planning; and education – will be available at selected schools and colleges in September 2020, and a further seven subject areas are due to be rolled out in 2021. T levels will be based on the same standards as apprenticeships, mapped against the same 15 occupations, but with a larger proportion of the student’s time spent in the classroom.

This will provide three clear pathways at Level 3:

  • The academic route studying A-Levels at a Further Education or Sixth Form College
  • The learning-based technical route studying T Levels at a Further Education College
  • The work-based technical route studying an apprenticeship through an employer

In addition to strengthening the technical education offer, T levels have the potential to play a significant role in meeting several of the other key recommendations in the recent review of post-18 education and funding.

Understandably, there has been some concern over these proposals. Chiefly that: not all learners will be suited to one of these pathways but would prefer a combination route as currently offered by a suite of Applied Generals; that funding for overlapping qualifications at Level 3 will be cut, reducing options for learners; and a fear over separating learners at 16 into academic or vocational routes.

However, whilst T levels are being designed primarily to prepare young people to enter skilled employment, the government has been clear from the outset that they must also provide a pathway to a higher or degree apprenticeship, or to further study at level 4 and above, either at age 18 or beyond.

In addition to strengthening the technical education offer, T levels have the potential to play a significant role in meeting several of the other key recommendations in the recent review of post-18 education and funding (the Augar review).

Whilst the Augar review was surprisingly light on its reference to T-Levels, it did consider the streamlining to higher vocational and technical education. Perhaps the greatest signal of intention was the recommendation to inject a £1bn lump sum into further education to rebalance the scales’, followed by an annual increase of £3bn for vocational education providers. This financial investment coupled with wider provision and recognition of Levels 4 and 5 has, if acted upon, the potential to effect a revolutionary change for learners keen to progress from beyond Level 3 whilst maintaining a clear pathway to university. T-Levels will be crucial to widening this access.

UCAS data

We know that universities have a wide range of views on the role of qualifications other than the traditional A-level as preparation for degree level study, and there remains some confusion about how T Levels will fit into that landscape. More students are now entering university with non-academic qualifications; since 2012 the number of students has steadily increased, and they now account for 24% of all higher learners.[1]

We are pleased that DfE has set up industry and higher-education stakeholder groups to consider these issues, and that NCUB and several of our members are a part of these groups.

Whilst work is at an early stage, it is already clear that T Levels are very different from the applied and technical qualifications currently offered. Firstly, they will require longer teaching hours, on a par with A Levels, and considerably more than is offered at present. In addition, students will be expected to achieve at least a Level 2 in English and maths, which should put them in a better position to progress to the rigours of higher-level study. But perhaps most significant change is that T-level students will be required to complete an industry placement.

Embedding industry placements into T Levels will offer learners the opportunity to apply their knowledge and make connections in industry. For businesses they create yet more links to education; offering earlier access to talent with the technical skills needed, cementing relationships with FE colleges, and offering an alternative to the apprenticeship model whilst retaining the on-the-job experience.

This level of business-education collaboration is one that we must applaud and which should ensure that 18-year olds who wish to continue their study have a clear understanding of the occupation they have chosen and the educational opportunities available to them both immediately and throughout their working life.

Structure of a T Level:[2]

Technical qualification Core theory, concepts and skills for an industry area.
Specialist skills and knowledge for an occupation or career.
An industry placement with an employer Minimum of 315 hours (approximately 45 days) offered as a block, on

day release, or a mix.

Minimum standards in Maths and English GCSE and functional skills for learners who haven’t yet achieved Level 2.


This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.


[1]. Department for Education, Review of post-18 education and funding, p. 90, (May 2019).

[2]. Department for Education, Introduction of T-Levels, (May 2019).