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18 December 2020

Reviewing funding for Level 3 qualifications in England: opening doors in adult education

Katie Wand
PR, Press and Communications Officer, QAA

In October, the Department for Education announced that it would be progressing to the consultation phase of the review of funding for routes into higher education, primarily focusing on adult education for those without traditional post-16 qualifications. The consultation explores alternative arrangements to the current system of funding for Level 3 qualifications in England and sets out detailed proposals for targeting a limited selection of qualifications - including the Access to HE Diploma. QAA is currently responsible for developing, promoting and regulating the Diploma, and supports the consultation as a means of leveraging it.

The proposal to fund the Diploma in England is a progressive one. The Access to HE Diploma’s uniquely flexible and cost-effective framework has proven a powerful tool in widening participation in higher education, and every year the Diploma supports around 20,000 students through Level 3 into universities, many of whom are from underrepresented groups. Of the Diploma students entering university in 2019, 31% were from ethnic minorities and 23% came from disadvantaged areas, compared to 21% and 10% from other Level 3 qualifications respectively. The Diploma is also popular among mature students who have not taken traditional post-16 education pathways such as A-levels, and is warmly received by many higher education providers who welcome the opportunity to demonstrate inclusivity in their student recruitment process.

Another key feature of the Diploma is its propensity to respond to skills shortages in the labour market. Last year, 51% of Diploma students chose to study health courses at university, with many citing improved employment opportunities as their primary reason for continuing their studies. The Diploma provides a pool of high-achieving students typically graduating in subjects critical to the national skills agenda, and aligning with the Government’s broader objective of reskilling and upskilling the workforce to fill employment gaps.

The review of funding for post-16 qualifications is particularly welcome due to its focus on increasing opportunities within adult education. Harnessing adult education - whether it is upskilling, reskilling, or studying to support career change - allows a new cohort of students, eager to learn and to work, to enter the workforce equipped with a higher level of qualification than they had achieved through traditional pathways. Adult education supports those in atypical circumstances on their learning and employment journeys and stimulates greater social mobility. For society as a whole, enabling adults to complete their studies in later life has been shown to positively impact the family unit, as children are likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps, and vice versa. Reviewing the way that the Government funds post-16 qualifications will also change the way we view education and the student profile more broadly. Not all prospective higher education students fall into the traditional model of young adults arriving direct from school. The move to fund adult education marks an important shift in the way we perceive the student profile and will help us paint a more accurate picture of the student body that captures this dynamic, vibrant and highly motivated group of adult students.

The consultation will run until January, following which the Government will report on the findings. If you would like to submit feedback on the consultation, you can do so by visiting

QAA has managed the scheme for the recognition and quality assurance of Access to HE courses in England and Wales since 1997, at the request of the then Secretary of State, and as one of our four company objects agreed by the sector. This service is provided for and funded in partnership with the 11 Access Validating Agencies whom we license, and by our institutional members.

We work to make sure that Access to HE courses provide a good preparation for higher education for adult students, and that the standard for the award of Access to HE Diplomas is maintained across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.