Universities lay down provisos for approval of potential A-level replacement. Rebecca Attwood reports. Universities across the sector this week began to signal their intention to accept the Government's new 14-19 diplomas as a pathway to their degree courses from 2010.
Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds University and now a member of a new government advisory group on diplomas, told The Times Higher this week that eight members of the elite research-led Russell Group of universities have so far indicated that they are likely to welcome students with diplomas.
The research-intensive 1994 Group has indicated that all its 19 members will accept the diplomas "in principle". A number of post-1992 universities also said this week that they will treat the most challenging level of diploma as equivalent to three A levels.
Such support from universities for the qualifications is seen as crucial for their success.
The first five diplomas - in construction, media, engineering, information technology and society - will be offered to students from next September. Nine others will be introduced over the next three years, and last week the Government unveiled plans for a third phase of diplomas encompassing traditional academic subjects - languages, science and humanities - to be taught to students from 2011.
The Government simultaneously confirmed that it had postponed the planned 2008 review of A levels to 2013. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, suggested that the diploma could eventually supersede the A level as students' qualification of choice.
Some admissions tutors considering the engineering diploma have expressed concern about the level of maths content and are holding out to see whether plans for an additional high-level "maths for engineers" unit developed by academics and engineering bodies gets the go-ahead from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
As it stands, the engineering diploma falls short, said Bill Evans, admissions tutor for civil engineering and construction courses at Kingston University.
However, Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions for the Cambridge colleges, said the advanced unit gave the diploma the potential to be a better preparation than maths A level. If accredited, he thinks many universities, including Cambridge, would endorse it.
Professor Arthur, a "diploma champion", said that Russell Group universities expecting to accept the engineering diploma - subject to final details, and usually with an A level in maths - included Leeds, Newcastle, Southampton, Sheffield, Warwick, Nottingham, Liverpool and Bristol.
He said the Department for Children, Schools and Families had approached the sector with an open invitation to put forward suggestions for other specialist units for the diplomas that would help students cope with the demands of higher education.
The diplomas offer an "exciting" new opportunity to encourage more young people to progress, he said.
Bristol University said it expects to consider applications from students with diplomas for 12 of its degree programmes. It is likely to require a combination of the diploma and named A levels for a further 41.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "We recognise the importance of the aims of the diploma in encouraging students to apply academic learning in a practical context; in tailoring the curriculum to the needs of the student; and in attempting both to stimulate the low achiever and stretch the brightest."
The 1994 Group is currently conducting the first detailed study of how diplomas might be incorporated into admissions criteria. Other universities planning to accept the diplomas include Middlesex, Huddersfield, the University of East London and Bedfordshire.
Teesside University said that the highest level 3 diploma was "a large qualification", and prospective students would not require A levels as well.
The higher education sector is set to have a strong role to play in the development of the third phase of diplomas, with four representatives on the Government's new Expert Advisory Group.
Ann Hodgson, from the University of London's Institute of Education, who served on the Tomlinson inquiry committee, said: "It was clear from last week's announcement that higher education institutions will play a much greater role and may even lead on the science, languages and humanities diploma lines. Having these three lines takes the diploma brand out of the vocational route only ... The Government could have gone one step further and said the diplomas would replace A levels but, significantly, it is the first time they haven't ruled this out."
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, criticised the plan to extend diplomas into academic areas. "If it is a fair trial, people will almost certainly see the advantages of A levels," he said.
Teaching begins in the first five diplomas - construction and the built environment; information technology; creative and media; society health and development; and engineering.
Review of A levels postponed until 2013.
First teaching of the next five diplomas in environment and land-based studies; manufacturing and product design; hair and beauty; business, administration and finance; and hospitality and catering.
First teaching of the next four diplomas - public services; sport and leisure; retail; and travel and tourism.
First cohort of diploma students start university.
First teaching of science; languages and humanities diplomas.
Second cohort of diploma students start university.
Third cohort of diploma students start university.
All learners from the age of 14 will be entitled to follow a diploma-based course of study.
Review of 14-19 qualifications.