Don't hark back, it's time for a new golden age

October 22, 2004

Be bold, says David Eastwood, and embrace the opportunity that the Tomlinson report offers

The Tomlinson report maintains what we in higher education most value in the 14-19 qualification system and offers bold and imaginative responses where we see it failing.

Yet it is also a challenge to us to think afresh about how we teach students and shape undergraduate programmes.

We bewail the complexity of the qualifications framework - Tomlinson offers us a diploma framework with a common architecture. We note the imbalance of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications - Tomlinson offers parity. We wish that students arrived at university with enhanced mathematical, communication and research skills - the development of such skills is at the heart of the diploma framework.

Our attempts to broaden the social base of higher education have been hindered by England's lamentable post-16 participation rate - Tomlinson offers interlocking diplomas and relevant programmes aimed at inspiring learners and encouraging more to stay in education.

There is a widespread perception that too much time is invested in working for the assessment system and too little in deepening subject knowledge and broadening understanding - Tomlinson diminishes the burden of assessment leaving more time for learning and teaching. We have said, loud and long, that A levels do not differentiate sufficiently between the most able - Tomlinson offers a seven-point grading scale, a transcript rich in data on a student's achievements and grading of the diploma and of a candidate's main learning.

Tomlinson holds out the prospect of more and better-motivated students, and of a much enhanced and socially diversified pool of well-qualified candidates for higher education as well as more refined differentiation of achievement to inform admissions decisions. The full recommendations should be implemented over ten years. Key elements need to be piloted, diploma specifications need to be redeveloped and GCSEs, national vocational qualifications and A levels must be carefully evolved into the main strands of the new qualification.

Nevertheless, Tomlinson recognises that higher education faces problems that need to be addressed more quickly. So we have recommended a series of early reforms to ministers.

We believe that the move to a fine-grained grading system can be achieved in three years. Electronic transcripts could be developed within the same period.

These might contain unit as well as aggregate grades and could also carry contextual data on the performance of the institution at which a candidate achieved his or her results. This kind of transcript, perhaps coupled with the evidence of the extended project we recommend, would give higher education institutions a much richer and robust basis from which to judge potential as well as achievement.

Much that SATs might offer would thus be available through an early move to transcripts and a revised grading system, thereby helping to meet much of the Schwartz agenda on admissions to higher education.

Implicitly, though, Tomlinson challenges higher education.

We are offered a unique opportunity to look at the structure of undergraduate programmes. Too often students are caricatured for what they don't know, while we invoke a mythical golden age when students arrived fully formed.

The new diploma framework will deliver well-motivated and well-qualified students, shaped by a motivating curriculum. We should ensure that our degree programmes build on this.

We might also reflect on whether it is altogether consistent to ask for greater differentiation in the way we grade A levels and diplomas while persisting with a degree classification system that sends so many very different graduates into the world with the dull conformity of the upper second.

Is not one of the implicit messages of Tomlinson that degree classification as we practise it has run its course and we too should move to transcripts and grade-point averages? As Tomlinson shapes the debate on how young people are best prepared for higher education, the world of work and civic responsibilities, higher education should respond boldly by asking whether we too should reform and look afresh at undergraduate programmes.

Do we have the courage to refine what is best and remodel what is outdated in degree programmes? Then we could be confident that we provide a higher education for which students would willingly pay £3,000 or even more.

David Eastwood is vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and was a member of the Tomlinson Group and chair of its higher education sub-group.

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