Research commissioned by QAA has found that the number of students studying for higher education awards below bachelor level has fallen steeply over the last 50 years, but the expansion of apprenticeships could reinvigorate the sector.
The research, which was carried out by the University of Sheffield's Centre for the Study of Higher Education, examined sub-bachelor higher education in the four countries of the UK since the Second World War, and found that:
- 14% of undergraduate students are studying for sub-bachelor qualifications
- undergraduate qualifications at certificate and diploma levels continue to be accorded a lower status
- the steep decline in sub-bachelor higher education has prompted major investment by government to change the pattern of student demand, for example, with the introduction of foundation degrees in 2001
- most sub-bachelor students study on a part-time basis
- there is considerable variation between UK countries in the size and share of sub-bachelor higher education
- no other part of higher education has so many types of qualification or so many providers
- not all providers of sub-bachelor courses will be on the new register of higher education providers.
'Significant stretches of sub-bachelor higher education are poorly understood and under-investigated,' says the report.
'At the time of the Robbins inquiry into higher education in the early 1960s, the number of students studying at these levels rivalled those pursuing bachelor degrees and outnumbered those undertaking postgraduate qualifications.
'Today, they are the smallest section of higher education, behind provision for the bachelor degree and that for postgraduate education.'
However, QAA's Paul Hazell is confident that the introduction of new higher apprenticeships will breathe new life into sub-bachelor learning.
'Apprenticeships are giving higher education a renewed relevance for employers and professional bodies, as well as providing more choice and opportunities for students.'
Further education colleges have traditionally provided wide-ranging opportunities for sub-bachelor qualifications. New higher apprenticeships sometimes include existing qualifications such as Higher National Diplomas and Certificates, and foundation degrees, and can provide progression routes onto degree apprenticeships.