Bogeymen and demons of GNVQ

November 24, 1995

Ron Barnett (THES, November 17) makes a number of very fair criticisms of the NCVQ consultative document on higher-level GNVQs. It is a pity that he mars these by seemingly ruling out the possibility that ideas from that stable have anything to say to higher education, and by trotting out some familiar bogeymen.

The document could indeed usefully have paid more attention to relevant current developments within higher education - though there is a long section at the beginning which gives them some attention. It does, also, contain too much jargon - and it is regrettable that this jargon is of a type which appears to alienate some in higher education (at least, it clearly alienates Barnett). But there are several points which need to be made on the other side. Here are just two.

First, this is a consultative document. It does not, as I understand it, reflect an intention on the part of NCVQ - still less of that favourite demon "the state" - to introduce higher-level GNVQs in any particular form or indeed at all. All options are open - including the option that no such animals may be introduced (and, even if they were, it would be up to individual institutions to take them or leave them).

Second, there really is little evidence in the document for one of Barnett's other favourite demons, "the production of pre-defined behavioural competence". Despite employers' confusions (reported on page 2 of the same issue), more and more people, in NCVQ as elsewhere, would (perhaps in different language) endorse Barnett's contention about the need to focus on "the highest forms of learning, critical self-reflection . . ." - though they are less likely to do so if others insist on polarising the arguments. Where there would be a genuine difference is over Barnett's rhetorical question about the applicability of "outcomes" to the higher education effort; while few would dispute the extreme difficulty of defining outcomes in an open-ended learning situation, the fact is that, unless you know what you are intending to do, you cannot know whether you have done it, and nor can the other legitimate stakeholders in the process.

The issue which ultimately underlies the debate about higher-level GNVQs is perhaps the relationship between recognisable national academic standards and the ideals associated with academic autonomy. I agree with Barnett that the document offers at best a slantwise entry into that issue. But nature abhors a vacuum. When is higher education itself going to fill it?

Anthony Woollard Ridgmount Gardens, London WC1

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