Frames and ambitions

November 14, 1997

The qualifications framework proposal for widening participation in higher education is fraught with problems, not least of which is the uninspiringly named subdegree, argues Julian Gravatt

The Dearing committee commissioned research on participation that shows that class matters, that male and female students study different subjects and that students from ethnic minorities predominate in certain "1992 universities". The Dearing report used this research to state an important principle: that government and funding bodies ought to give priority to institutions that widen participation. Unfortunately, the Dearing proposals failed to match the principles.

A key proposal for widening participation is the creation of a qualifications framework for higher education. The Dearing report argues that such a framework will make it easier for students to make progress without having to commit themselves to a continuous three- or four-year degree at a single institution. The subdegree levels (H1 and H2) are seen as the key first stages towards the bachelor's degree (H3) and beyond. Elsewhere the report recommended that further education colleges take a leading role in subdegree provision and that higher education expansion be concentrated at this level.

The Higher Education Funding Council has taken tentative steps in this direction in its announcement that it will fund 1,000 new subdegree places from 1998/99.

So far so good, but the sub-degree proposals are stymied by caution. First of all there is the name. The Dearing report rejected the title "associate degree" because it would devalue the term degree, would be seen as second class and would be treated with suspicion by students. This leaves the H1 and H2 levels with a third-class name (subdegree), which may even be treated with contempt. There are echoes here of Dearing's second report. The established qualification (degree, A level) is protected, with the result that necessary changes do not take off.

The problems for subdegree provision will be compounded by tuition fees and the admissions market. It has taken time for people to realise that the Pounds 1,000 fee will apply to HNDs as well as to degrees. Students who would have to pay for a degree will also have to pay for an HND. Students with lower family incomes may pay nothing but, again, this exemption applies across the board.

The Dearing report considered lower fees for the HND but decided against them on the grounds of simplicity. Simplification is an important priority but, come August 1998, this will be little comfort for those recruiting HND students. There will be strong competition between institutions for students in 1998/99 because the tuition fee is likely to reduce student demand.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show applications increased in 1997 to beat the fee deadline and that there has been a drop in early applications for 1998. There will be nothing to stop admissions tutors changing entry standards at clearing and luring students away from HNDs to degree programmes. Persuasive arguments will be needed to recruit to HNDs.

The problems with individual proposals should not divert attention from the importance of widening participation. A helpful chart in the Department for Education and Employment leaflet Higher Education for the 21st Century illustrates the fact that participation by students from higher socioeconomic groups was twice that of lower socioeconomic groups at the start of the decade and that the gap has widened throughout the decade. A world-class economy and an inclusive society will not be created if higher education is biased towards the top 66 per cent.

It would not be fair to blame universities solely for the inequality. As the Dearing report says, the largest determinant of participation in the 18-to-21 age group is educational achievement at age 18. There may be discrimination on individual cases at the admissions stage but the system is transparent and based on school-level qualifications. In the UK, achievement in qualifications varies with class. Admission to university depends on achievement at 18, which in turn depends on achievement at 16 and probably earlier. Higher education will not widen participation by acting as if it is a sector that can solve its problems itself.

Alternative approaches to widening participation were set out in the Kennedy report, Learning Works, which argued for a national aspiration for all to achieve a level 3 qualification for employment and for social reasons. This aspiration would require a massive change because only 46 per cent of the population achieve level 3 qualifications at age 21 and few study at this level in later life. The organisations that would make it possible for this aim to be delivered are further education colleges. And, at the same time as the Higher Education Funding Council is encouraging colleges to bid to deliver more subdegree provision, other changes threaten level 3 provision. A recent Association of Colleges survey shows that level 3 courses were hit in September by the further education funding freeze. In six months' time, the New Deal may further reduce the level 3 provision for 18-24-year olds.

Dearing researchers use the metaphor of the climbing frame to explain how a qualification framework might work. Keeping the degree in place while reducing support for sub-degree provision and level 3 provision is likely to keep higher education a step too far for many people.

Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College.

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