Universities face pressure to support the Government's latest bid to widen participation, reports Claire Sanders.
Universities are being urged to support a diploma for 14-to-19-year olds that could substantially boost the number of students entering higher education.
Lord Leitch said in his Treasury-backed review of skills last week that the diplomas, to be rolled out from 2008, "must" succeed. He said that they would encourage young people to stay on at school after the age of 16 and help to meet the UK's skills needs. He added that 40 per cent of the workforce should have degree-level qualifications by 2020, compared with 29 per cent now.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, described the diplomas as part of a radical set of changes to 14-to-19 education and announced the creation of a Higher Education Engagement project to help ensure they were embraced by the sector. He said that many universities were already working to ensure that the diplomas would provide "a valid pathway to higher education and the workplace".
"These diplomas are not about vocational training or preparing young people for a trade. They will offer a blend of academic and practical learning, enabling young people to study issues and concepts in a real-life context," he said.
Ministers are under pressure to make sure the diplomas succeed, having rejected the Tomlinson report, which suggested scrapping A levels in favour of a unified academic and vocational qualification.
Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and joint chair of the new engagement board, said: "If successful, these diplomas could enable the Government to introduce compulsory education or workplace training up to the age of 18 as early as 2010.
"They could lead to very large numbers of people coming through to universities with different skills and work experience than at present.
Universities need to ensure that suitable provision will be in place for them."
Five initial diplomas in information technology, health and social care, engineering, creative and media, and construction and the built environment will be introduced in 2008, with five subjects the following year and the final four in 2010.
Schools and colleges are expected to form consortia to deliver the qualifications and to ensure that there is a high degree of employer involvement so that pupils gain work experience.
A number of conferences, starting next week, are being held around the UK to alert universities to the significance of the diplomas. But not all are convinced.
Janice Kay, deputy vice-chancellor of Exeter university and chair of the 1994 Group dealing with this issue, said: "More work needs to be done to ensure appropriate consultation and input between skills councils and higher education so that the strong vision for the diplomas can be realised."