T-Levels: A wise or risky choice for UK-bound international students?

T-Levels: A wise or risky choice for UK-bound international students?
Digital transitions are everywhere in the education sector. Source: Shutterstock

The discussion around T-Levels began in 2017. Designed to provide vocational alternatives to traditional A-Level subjects, the plan has been described as the UK’s biggest ever “overhaul of technical education”, devised to deliver a “skills revolution” within post-Brexit Britain.

These new study routes will roll out across 52 institutions by 2020, offering two-year technical courses in construction, digital education and childcare.

Only a small number of UK tertiary education providers will introduce the first three subjects. The government has said that by 2021, all pathways from the first six “priority routes” will be offered by selected providers.

The six priority pathways to be introduced the following year include:

  • Legal, Finance, Accounting (full route)
  • Digital (full route)
  • Construction (full route)
  • Engineering and Manufacturing (full route)
  • Health and Science (full route)

These new study routes will offer two-year technical courses in construction, digital education and childcare. Source: Shutterstock

Declared as part of last year’s government budget, officials have proposed additional funding of £500m per year to support the brand-new system.

“This was also trailed by the Treasury as part of its focus on increasing the status of technical education,” said Rowena Mason, Deputy Political Editor of The Guardian.

While PM Theresa May claims T-Levels will help the UK “compete globally”, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary has deemed them “little more than a meaningless spin”.

It has since been revealed that the UK is home to the world’s most expensive education system. With the prospect of hefty fees and growing debt looming overhead, international students want a guarantee of quality before applying to a UK institution.

So, would enrolling on a T-Level programme be a wise or dangerous choice?

The Positives:

They will include a three-month work placement

A stand out feature of the T-Level proposition lies in the promise of integrated work placements, designed to give students a 40-60-day taste of the working world.

“If T-Levels are developed carefully then they could give learners the edge when going into the workplace, as they’ll have direct knowledge of their sector and a good period of work experience. It would put them at an advantage over other students,” says Gemma Gathercole, further education policy expert and former Head of Funding and Assessment at LSECT.

“T-Levels need to deliver high-quality content, a high-quality experience for the students undertaking them and content that is both relevant to the workplace now, but also develops skills that allows T-Level learners to progress in the workplace when they get there.

“The world of work is not static, and these qualifications can’t be developed in a vacuum separate of this knowledge,” adds Gathercole.

This new vocational route fulfils rising student demand

UK technical education currently encompasses 13,000 courses, harbouring a structure that’s incredibly difficult for both international and domestic students to understand. But with government figures showing that in 2016, most 17 year olds in England weren’t choosing the more traditional A-Level pathway, learners are obviously seeking a viable, practical alternative.

They offer more teaching hours and greater industry involvement

These two-year technical courses will offer more teaching hours for participating students, boosting the current 450-hours by 50 percent to around 900-hours per year.

Not only does this seem better value for money in terms of teacher contact, but it also promotes a 360-degree education rife with both academic and industry enrichment.

“I think the greater contact hours should really benefit T-Level students in terms of skills development,” says Gathercole.

“They will have more time to learn and develop those skills and to benefit from access to appropriately qualified teachers, tutors and maybe even employers.”

On top of this, curricula will not be designed by the government but by experienced professionals, ensuring all acquired skills are recognised and relevant among recruiting industries.

The Negatives:

Will all courses offer the alleged “Gold-standard” delivery?

Last year, Jonathon Slater, Senior Civil Servant for the UK Department of Education, formally expressed concerns regarding programme quality, stating it would be “challenging” to ensure the first three programmes could be taught to a “consistently high standard” in time for 2020.

Slater cited his duty to consider the “regularity, proprietary, value for money and feasibility” of public spending in a letter to the UK Education Secretary, advising government officials to push the start date back to 2021.

“T-Levels are very much in their infancy,” says Gathercole.

“No qualifications have yet been developed and there has only been a very brief consultation on the content for the first three areas.

“Getting the development right is absolutely crucial. Vocational and technical education in England has long been a game of political football, with more ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities to get right in my career alone than I’d like to admit,” she adds.

Recent cuts have affected both institutional space and curriculum quality. Source: Shutterstock

The strategy depends on funding and employer dedication

Experts believe the additional annual funding of £500m is simply not enough. The sector already suffers from a significant lack of budget, with recent cuts affecting both institutional space and curriculum quality.

A lot of UK teaching spaces and facilities remain in a state of disrepair. A 2017 report by the National Audit Office revealed the estimated cost of returning all school buildings to a ‘satisfactory’ or ‘better’ condition to be around £6.7bn – so how can the projected £500m a year possibly be enough to cover this and promise high-standard T-Level education?

“There are some big gaps to fill. Education for those aged 16-19 had dramatic funding cuts between 2010 and 2016, with continuing inflation-related decreases continuing now,” Gathercole explains.

“The £500m is incredibly welcome and a huge step forward. However, the promise of sufficiency of work experience placements is a big one, and one that should not be put on the shoulders of the FE sector alone.

“If UK businesses want new entrants to the workplace to have experience, they need to be more open to offering placements. We should not underestimate the practical difficulty of scheduling this though, particularly to ensure the £500m isn’t just used to cope with the volume of students going in and out of placements at different times.”

There is no way to guarantee participation and recognition from UK employers

  • Employment-related concerns are growing among the UK’s prospective student market. Education professionals have stated that degree profitability was never a major concern for previous generations, but rising costs, increased competition and growing unemployment means students are reluctant to commit to UK education.


    And if employers seem unwilling to participate in the new T-Level scheme, prospects for technical graduates would appear increasingly grim.

    “The majority of reforms in the vocational and technical education area is often described as putting employers at the heart, but also often reference different employers or mechanisms for achieving that. What’s critical is giving the time and consultation necessary to get a critical mass of employer engagement.”

    But there’s no way to gauge the effectiveness of T-Levels until they come into play. It’s a decision that could pay off for those initial candidates, but also one that could warrant dead-end consequences when it comes to finding a job. As of yet, there’s no way we can know.

    So, what advice would we offer prospective international students concerned about the value, relevance and quality of UK T-Level education?

    “Have a look at entry requirements for courses/jobs that you’d like to go into in the future. Ask questions,” says Gathercole.

    “If you’re looking for a technical education in one of the sectors that T-Levels will be offered in, then they could be a good option for you.

    “My best advice though is to first think about what’s next for you. If you want to go into higher education to read English, for example, then a T Level probably isn’t for you. But if you know you’re looking for a career in the Digital Industries then the Digital T-Levels might be the best option.”

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