By Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU), Chair of MillionPlus, NCUB Board Member.

In October last year, the Department for Education announced that it would be reviewing technical education at Levels 4 and 5.

This is understandable given the growing consensus among employers and policy makers that the UK has a shortfall of learners at these Levels – especially in technical and vocational areas. According to the OECD, only 10 per cent of UK adults hold stand-alone Levels 4 and 5, “professional and technical qualifications”, as their highest award.

In the first instance, it would be very helpful if the review could find an agreed definition of technical and vocational education. Both the Government’s Industrial Strategy and Lord Sainsbury’s Report on Technical Education are littered with references to technical education but a definition is conspicuously absent.

Technical education has long suffered from a strange paradox. Although employers need individuals with higher level technical skills, these educational pathways command lower social esteem as well as policy priority (and funding) than their academic counterparts. One reason for this diminutive view of technical learning is that it has always been defined in relation to academic study and characterised by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is.

The problem with a lack of definition becomes apparent the moment you look at the proposed 15 routes for the Government’s Tech Levels. Few would argue against the inclusion of Engineering, Manufacturing or Construction; but Childcare and Education might come as a surprise.

The 15 Technical Routes:

  • Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care
  • Business and Administration
  • Catering and Hospitality
  • Childcare and Education
  • Construction
  • Creative and Design
  • Digital
  • Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Hair and Beauty
  • Health and Science
  • Legal, Finance and Accounting
  • Protective Services
  • Sales, Marketing and Procurement
  • Social Care
  • Transport and Logistics


In 2018, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published research analysing how “vocational” individual degree subjects were according to the proportion of graduates going on to employment in a narrow range of relevant occupations. Using this ratio of concentration by subject and occupation, HEFCE estimated that a fifth of first-degree courses are “fairly” or “highly vocational”. By this definition, some courses that are considered highly academic, such as Medicine and Dentistry, are classified as “highly vocational” given that 90 per cent of graduates enter these professions after study. “Fairly vocational” courses include Civil Engineering and Information Technology.

Using career-based outcomes in this way provides a relatively simple method for defining different types of education:

  • Academic education principally involves the development of critical thinking, theoretical understanding and skills unaligned with any principal career pathway;
  • Vocational education puts a greater emphasis on the practical application of skills and knowledge aligned to a particular career or vocation; and
  • Technical education is a branch of vocational education that involves STEM skills.

It is important to emphasise that technical and vocational education are not solely practical, just as academic education is not solely knowledge based. There are elements of both knowledge and practice in both vocational and academic education, but the balance is different.

The Government defines levels of Education with the Regulated Qualifications Framework (Level 3 being equivalent to A-Levels, Level 6 to a Degree etc). Ofqual’s description of each Level (which applies to all subjects within that Level) contains both a knowledge and a skills component. For example:

Knowledge descriptor Skill descriptor
Level 4 The holder has practical, theoretical or technical knowledge and understanding of a subject or field of work to address problems that are well defined but complex and non-routine; can analyse, interpret and evaluate relevant information and ideas; is aware of the nature of approximate scope of the area of study or work; has an informed awareness of different perspectives or approaches within the area of study or work. The holder can identify, adapt and use appropriate cognitive and practical skills to inform actions and address problems that are complex and non-routine while normally fairly well-defined; review the effectiveness and appropriateness of methods, actions and result.

In each case, there is a balance between academic and practical – between knowledge and skills. Good quality teaching of even subjects such as history includes a practical element, such as the interpretation of sources, possibly including digitisation and translation.

There is often discussion about the absence of a parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. However, if we apply these definitions, we come some way to achieving this balance. Many vocational qualifications, such as Law and Accountancy, are highly valued as career paths and so too, are many technical qualifications, such as Medicine, Engineering, Dentistry and Veterinary Science. Many academic STEM qualifications are highly valued such as Physics, Economics and Mathematics.

If vocational, includes Medicine and Law there should be no need to talk about parity of esteem. Rather than change people’s perception of vocational and technical education – which is a hard task – we need simply to change their understanding of the meaning. If we explain that medicine is a technical subject, then perhaps the much sought for esteem of technical subjects will follow.

My recent paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute examines this issue further, by attempting to place Level 4 and 5 qualifications in their educational context; highlight the key issues that are driving the shortfall in the numbers of learners educated to these levels; and to make recommendations about how these numbers could be increased.

The full report: Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5 is available to read here.