A calling to arms

October 11, 1996

Debbie Raven reports on the struggle to match tne next stage of NVQs with professional needs.

National Vocational Qualifications and their Scottish equivalents spark extreme reactions in the world of higher education. Is it a work-based alternative to university, or a Government plot to get employers to bear the costs of education? The library community is at the focus of the debate as it struggles to develop a postgraduate level NVQ in information and library services (ILS).

The Government extended its NVQ framework to include levels 4 and 5, thought to equate to degree and postgraduate level education, in 1990. Lower-level NVQs assess competence to perform defined tasks in the workplace. Critics ask whether this approach can be applied to professional jobs which, according to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, demand skills in such areas as "ethics, creativity and problem solving in unknown environments".

Some experts say that fast-evolving and increasingly technology-led library and information work is uniquely resistant to training which maps "what people do now".

NVQs divide skills into units, then into elements, and the employee has to prove competence in each element, backed by "knowledge and understanding". For librarians, however, the point of information technology is the way it integrates different elements of the job and enables one person sitting at a terminal to carry out many tasks.

"The NVQ programme creates the impression that you can prepare once and for all - the opposite of life-long learning. If they show competences in context, can they be employable when the context changes?" says Tom Wilson, head of information studies at the University of Sheffield and one of the biggest critics of ILS NVQs.

ILS NVQs levels 2 to 4 were launched this spring. Levels 2 and 3, for "paraprofessionals", are generally seen as a good opportunity for people who have not had the time for formal education. Level 4 is causing more controversy, and work on level 5 standards is proving much more difficult than expected. After two years of consultation, consensus still eludes the ILS Lead Body, the group which develops standards for the qualifications, and includes employers from throughout the sector.

Anne Trevett of the Lead Body Office says: "On the one hand people are defending the high ground in HE, on the other people champion the open access and work-based nature of NVQ which can offer very positive things. Professional qualifications take a long time - up to five years - whereas people can see how NVQs are directly related to the work they do." The main concern of ILS teachers is that NVQs should take into account the strategic role of senior staff. "Professionals must have the ability to relate theory and practice, to learn from experience, to revise and update the state of their professional understanding and to adapt to change," the British Association of Information and Library Education and Research stated last year in an open letter to the Library Association Record.

At a recent conference Peter Enser, BAILER representative on the lead body, distinguished between such skills and knowledge and ". . . those tested through the reductionist Scottish/National Vocational Qualification model of occupational functional analysis". But he admits that even if the present NVQ model is unacceptable, there is a need to be open to different methods of training: "The interests of the rapidly evolving ILS profession can only be served, it seems, by fully engaging [its] experience in the further development of vocational qualifications in the field."

Some remain convinced that effective management skills, especially in IT, are best developed in a higher education institution. "Externally determined competences are too rigid and would rule out anybody who is considered an "oddball". Demonstrating responsiveness to problems with a formal approach - that's what good ILS postgraduate education in universities teaches," says John Shinebourne, systems analyst at Thames Valley University and a former member of the lead body.

But NVQs have progressed a long way since their box-ticking, anti-theory beginnings, and professional bodies and universities are becoming more accommodating. The Library Association is ensuring that its own qualification procedures can be "hospitable" to NVQs. The library school at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle is the first assessment centre for ILS NVQs. It has found that organisations send their employees on level 4 NVQs rather than have them study for a BA by day release over six years. UNN is one of 17 HE institutions helping to set up an awarding body for higher-level NVQs.

Levels 4 and 5 may be suited to staff from some types of libraries more than others. "From the earliest of workshops by the lead body the big issue remains, to what extent is it 'being a librarian' at a higher level?" Anne Trevett says.

A public librarian is likely to need generic management skills. A university librarian's career, at least in the future envisaged by the funding councils' electronic library project (eLib), is more likely to be as an IT manager, an information broker acting on behalf of users, or a teacher of networked information skills to inexpert students and academics.

The Edulib project, part of the eLib programme, found that librarians lack confidence in this role. But NVQs offer little to improve confidence or skills as trainers. "There is a little section on teaching in level 4. It makes an attempt but we need a whole new qualification to increase confidence," Edulib project coordinator Susan Douglas of the University of Hull says.

On the other hand, level 4 training is regarded as useful in public and school libraries which increasingly employ managers without library qualifications. At Surrey County libraries, South East area manager John Hobson says that far from finding them mechanistic, managers on the trial level 4 programme say they now have the confidence to question how things are done and suggest improvements: "Standards are flexible enough to be adapted to cope with IT developments. Their day-to-day experience is up-to-date."

Coinciding with the stalemate in the profession over level 5, a final comprehensive and systematic review of NVQs in all sectors has just begun. Reporting to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, the "Review of All" will scrutinise each sector's "functional map", the index of what people do.

The ILS Lead Body has received extra funding for this from the Department for Education and Employment. Anne Trevett says: "This will allow us to address the issue more sensibly, look at questions of take-up of NVQs, their value in the marketplace, duplication and overlap with existing qualifications. That should help us readdress a level 5 ILS."

Many members of the lead body - senior practitioners in the field -would be unhappy to give up. "I think that is the majority view on the lead body," Ann Irving, head of the centre for complementary learning at Thames Valley University, says. She would welcome a level 5 qualification when recruiting senior staff.

"You can assess competences for senior people and their training needs," she says. "But for this level you have to look at 'probably can do' as well as 'can do' - predicting competences for situations that may arise. These are particular to a profession. In a culture where the public are increasingly challenging professional practitioners, we need instruments to say we are competent."

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