Unit delivery must not be laid to rest

23 June 2015

Through unit delivery, learners can be awarded credits for the achievement of parts of a qualification instead of having to complete a whole qualification.

Our research shows that for many people, unit delivery can be the only form of learning that is accessible and affordable. Employers also like unit delivery because they can use it to focus training on identified business needs. In addition, employers like seeing the impact of a unit before committing to funding full qualifications and they like being able to recognise small amounts of learning through the award of credit.

Our findings also indicate that unit delivery could solve the long-standing dilemma of how to make learning accessible for micro-businesses and self-employed people, who cannot spend long periods of time away from their business and struggle to afford the costs of learning.
However, as often is the case with revolutionary ideas, the system needs to be re-shaped to accommodate unit delivery. To date, this has only happened within OLASS and the Unit Offer for the Unemployed.

Any further expansion of unit delivery will require courage from all involved:

  • It is much more straightforward for learning providers to deliver full qualifications to small numbers of learners than to try to engage the many more learners needed to deliver the same number of guided learning hours of unit delivery.
  • Although it offers the potential to eventually massively expand their market by reaching new customers, awarding organisation fee incomes may drop in the short term if existing learners undertake parts of qualifications rather than whole qualifications.
  • Professor Wolf’s concerns about the value of small amounts of vocational learning, whilst relevant to the 14 to 19 year old group that she was reporting on, have been wrongly applied to adults. It will take a concerted effort to raise awareness that whilst not appropriate for young people, small amounts of vocational learning are just what many adults need.

Whilst these factors have hindered the expansion of unit delivery, the potential death blow could be new freedoms for awarding organisations within the Framework of Regulated Qualifications (FRQ) proposed by the qualifications regulator, Ofqual. Unlike the current Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) which requires vocational qualifications to be unit based and credit bearing, the replacement FRQ does not specify how vocational qualifications should be designed. Therefore unless Ofqual decides otherwise, awarding organisations have the freedom to choose whether or not to make vocational qualifications unit based. Prior to the QCF, when awarding organisations last had the freedom to choose the design of their vocational qualifications, qualifications often had to be achieved in their entirety, within restrictive timescales and with very restricted, if any, choice in content. If we return to giving awarding organisations greater freedom to choose the design of qualifications, unit based, credit bearing qualifications may become no longer available at some levels and in some sectors. At worse, they could disappear altogether.

NIACE is therefore urging Ofqual to retain the right to require some groups of FRQ qualifications to adhere to specific design templates, whenever consistency of design is important or a particular design is necessary to secure policy objectives such as accessibility or affordability. Many vocational learners, and especially those learning at lower levels, have barriers to engagement and achievement that make it less likely that they will commit to, and succeed in, lengthy, end tested qualifications. Therefore we are particularly keen for lower level vocational qualifications to remain unit based and credit bearing and have recommended to Ofqual that they publish guidance stating that, to be fit for purpose, all below level 2 adult vocational qualifications should be unit based and credit bearing.