A report on the activities of awarding bodies published this week has raised serious concern about the way externally assessed qualifications are run as commercial businesses "lacking proper regulation".
The awarding bodies are accused of operating a price-fixing qualifications cartel, an allegation denied by both the Business and Technology Education Council and City and Guilds.
The report, written by Julian Gravatt, senior registrar of Lewisham College, is part of a series of research and policy discussion papers entitled Praxis. It criticises the awarding bodies for:
* Acting like businesses when it suits them but avoiding the rules governing other firms
* Spending large sums on advertising¯ * Acting in ways that can be contrary to the interests of their customers (students)
* Increasing their fees by as much as 23 per cent while failing to pass on savings
* Refusing to accede to Department for Education and Employment demands
* Delaying the issue of revised course specifications
* Delaying the issue of students' qualification certificates.
The report questions the establishment of the Joint Council of Vocational Awarding Bodies in 1995 by BTEC, the City and Guilds and the Royal Society of Arts to share information and good practice, to lobby on common interests and "apparently to agree prices".
John Tate of BTEC said there were misunderstandings and contradictions in the paper. "For example the paper claims that awarding bodies are in fierce competition and yet describes them as working together in a cartel," he said.
Mr Gravatt argues, however, that if the three awarding bodies acted independently in setting the 1995/96 GNVQ fees, why did they act collectively in defending them? A joint statement was issued after complaints over fee increases surfaced last summer.
The report claims colleges have handed over significant control of the curriculum to awarding bodies which have in turn "pushed their own priorities" rather than colleges' interests to the Department for Education and Employment. "They have jealously defended their own independence but they have increasingly defined themselves as competitive business organisations out for market share, revenues and brand loyalty among their customers."
Adrian Perry, principal of Lambeth College, said he supported the findings 100 per cent. "We need to abolish the current system and replace it with a single awarding body - it's just a mad house."
Ian Sharp, vice principal of John Leggott college in S****horpe, supported the report and said there was "a scandal of major proportions" with some GNVQ end-of-year tests "grossly inconsistent" and jeopardising students' chances of gaining university places.
City and Guilds dismissed Mr Gravatt's report as partisan. Spending on advertising - roughly Pounds 500,000 per year - was defended on the grounds that students now had a choice between competing bodies.
C&G said any delays to changed course specifications were not its responsibility and hold ups affecting students' certificates were "very infrequent".
Funding Learning or Funding Awarding Bodies?, Lewisham College registry 0181 6920353.