THE BLOG

Why We Shouldn't Underestimate the HND

24/02/2015 11:38 GMT | Updated 21/04/2015 10:59 BST

Think students, qualifications, careers, employment - did you think degrees? Most likely. Because the value of degrees, cost to study them and recognition of them in the workplace, has dominated education headlines for years.

But with the spotlight firmly fixed on degrees, have we as a nation let other equally important qualifications fall into the shade? I believe we have and it could be costing many students their education and keeping careers in limbo.

Take the Higher National Diploma (HND). Often referred to as a semi-professional qualification because of the workplace-linked nature of subjects offered - business and computing being two of the most common - an HND typically takes two years to complete, or three to four years part-time. Generally an HND is also the equivalent to two years at university.

At one time, HNDs were a very popular choice, yet the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFC) has reported that since 2009 the number of students enrolling on HND courses has been in steady decline.

This both puzzles and troubles me as in my view, HNDs do have a very valuable role to play in supporting both individual and economic growth.

Students who enrol are usually already working and looking to gain additional qualifications to help advance their career and stay competitive in the job market. HNDs teach useful skills for practical reasons.

So, when I read that the CBI is predicting that half of British Businesses will expand their workforce in 2015 (particularly in sectors such as computer technology and tourism), but that the National Careers Council has found employers are not confident they will find sufficient recruits for the jobs on offer because of a lack of workplace skills in those applying, I find it hard to believe that HNDs aren't receiving more attention.

Recent analysis of students enrolling on online HND courses with RDI revealed two distinct groups -older individuals (25-35) already in work looking for a career step-change, and younger individuals with A-Levels that want an alternative to university. For both groups, 'learning while earning' was important which in many cases is the reason that online learning appealed as specific HND study route.

I'm sure that these groups, and these specific reasons for enrolment, are not unique to RDI - they will apply to thousands of people across the UK. The problem is profile, or rather lack of it. Too many people just don't know about this underestimated qualification and don't realise that there are flexible and affordable ways to study it.

Another thing we discovered at RDI when talking to the older group of HND enrolees was that there is often a concern about 'not being good enough to study', followed by surprise that, as HND courses are vocational, relevant work experience is taken into account in place of, or in addition to, formal qualifications required for course approval.

Let's take a moment to recap. A qualification grounded in workplace skills and knowledge, affordable course fees, flexibility that means study can fit around work (no need for a career break) and experience linked pre-qualification. It's a combination that holds so much potential for so many.

I mentioned earlier an HND is equivalent to two years at university. Once complete, students can then go on to do a one year top up course in order to gain a degree if they wish.

This may be particularly relevant to that younger demographic I mentioned. Historically, those leaving school with their A levels looked at their future as a linear, staged process - university, degree, career. Not so anymore. Cost-conscious students are increasingly looking to get onto the career ladder as early as possible - taking three years out to study doesn't hold the appeal it once did.

Part-time or online HNDs have a lot to offer this group. Individuals can study while working their first job, the skills they learn supporting their development and onward career prospects; they also receive valuable insight into their education ambitions without having to 'jump in at the deep end'. If they enjoy the course and see further benefit in study, they may decide to continue on a top up degree course. In many instances, these will be students that would otherwise not have considered, or felt able to consider, degree level study.

Whether viewed as a route to further study, or as qualification in its own right, the HND has a lot to offer and we shouldn't discount it, forget it or underestimate the impact it can have on people's lives.

Of course, I'm not suggesting we forget about degrees. Not at all. Degrees will always be the right choice for many. But they aren't the right choice for all. And with business and industry crying out for candidates with both qualifications and practical workplace skills, there has never been a better time for us to give HNDs the recognition they deserve.