Centre for Vocational Education Research LSE RSS Email Facebook Twitter

Our Research

It has been long recognised that significant improvements in the vocational education and skills of the UK labour force are essential for stronger and more sustainable economic growth. It is also well established that there are long-running structural problems and inadequacies in vocational education in England (as highlighted in the Wolf Report of 2011). Our aim is to create a research institution that will advance our understanding of the requirements for vocational education in the UK today, identify the challenges in provision of vocational education, and develop and strengthen the knowledge-base to enable a more agile, relevant and needs-based vocational education sector to become a driving force for economic growth and social mobility, as it is in other countries.

In our research we will address the following fundamental questions facing vocational education today:

1. Describing the Further and Vocational Education landscape in England

Understanding further (FE) and vocational education (VE) in England is notoriously challenging. According to the Ofqual Annual Market report, in 2013/14 there were 25,000 available qualifications, designed by about 166 awarding organisations, which issued around 16 million certificates. This research strand, which is mainly of a descriptive nature, intends to describe the FE and VE sector, on the qualifications on offer and on the institutions that deliver them. The aim is to inform the other research strands, but also the general and interested public.

2. How does vocational education affect individual prosperity, firm productivity and profitability, and economic growth?

Understanding the added value produced by vocational education is important because it underpins government decisions about investment in VE and training. Information about the benefits to individuals and firms helps them to make decisions about undertaking/supporting VE and training. The research in this strand intends to improve upon the existing evidence on returns to skills investment by individuals and firms. Assessing the returns to education is one of the oldest but also one of the most difficult tasks in labour economics. The challenge lies in separating the effect of individual's innate abilities from the effects of the education and training undertaken. Simple comparison of wages of people who did and did not follow a course is therefore misleading because it ignores the fact that more able and more motivated individuals select into courses, but would have been more successful than those who do not even in the absence of the course.

The recently linked administrative data sources made available by the government will be crucial in improving existing estimates, because they will allow to better control for unobserved ability.

An international comparative study of investment in apprenticeship training in the automotive manufacturing and retail sectors based on case studies will help us to understand how firms make decisions to invest in training.

3. How can the quantity of 'high quality' vocational education provision be improved?

Producing sufficient high quality vocational training should be one of the fundamental objectives of the sector. However, there are issues relating to the capacity of the sector to deliver (both in terms of the characteristics of the workforce and the learners), the funding associated with vocational training, as well as the role of employers in delivering workplace training.

Specifically, in this research strand we study what constitutes 'high quality' in terms of improving skills acquisition, and how one can improve the quantity of high quality provision. Furthermore, how can this be achieved in a cost-effective manner? There is little academic research on what constitutes 'high quality' in the VE sector (compared to schools - where there is extensive research).

The research projects in this strand include the application of the conceptual framework of the 'education production function' to VE. Other projects include an assessment of the role of English and Maths in accessing high quality vocational routes and a case study of apprenticeships provided in a Higher Education setting.

4. How do the costs and benefits of vocational education influence individuals' participation decisions?

This is important for understanding how students make educational decisions and the extent to which these can be influenced by better information or careers advice. The complexity of the system makes it crucial that we improve our understanding of what are good vocational routes so students can be advised on what would be a good choice for them.

This involves the following types of projects:
  • Delineation of the benefits of alternative VE routes in terms of progression and employment and an appropriate match between skills and employment

  • How do changes in the costs of VE impact on students' VE participation choices and the pattern of participation?

  • How can better career guidance and information on the costs and benefits of VE help young people to navigate the system and make appropriate choices?