New higher level vocational qualifications which could "define the content and standards professional bodies seek in degrees" are proposed in a consultation paper launched this week.
General National Vocational Qualifications at levels 4 and 5 - deemed "broadly equivalent" to first-degree level and beyond - might be offered by universities and colleges alongside, or as an alternative to, diploma and degree programmes, the paper suggests.
Such a move would answer the initial and continuing education and training needs of the professions and students seeking more entry and exit points in higher education and on the career ladder, according to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications which oversees the GNVQ and NVQ system.
The paper argues that the development of higher GNVQs would help higher education respond to changing labour market needs for vocationally-trained graduates with a broad range of "core skills" in areas like numeracy, information technology and modern languages. The unit-based structure of GNVQs would also fit increasing modularisation of degrees.
But the relationship between the qualifications and honours degrees would need to be established as "they would be designed to share common content, to facilitate credit transfer" the paper says.
It sets out two options: * Align the standard of a GNVQ 4 with that of an honours degree, while restricting its coverage or content to approximately two thirds of an honours degree.
* Align GNVQ 4, in respect of its standard and content or coverage, with that achieved after the first two years of an honours degree.
The paper says that the latter model would correspond more closely to that of an "associate degree", recommended in the Higher Education Quality Council's report Choosing to Change as an alternative for students not wishing to pursue a full honours degree.
No matter which model is chosen, higher GNVQs would overlap with vocational degrees, and so "each university would have the scope to offer its own distinctive approach to a discipline while incorporating the GNVQ standards as a common core within an honours degree programme".
The possibility of having different levels within a GNVQ might also be explored, to help transfer between GNVQs and degrees "where credit accumulation and transfer schemes distinguish between credits for the first, second and third years of a degree".
Higher GNVQs could also provide the pre-vocational stages of professional qualifications, and hybrid qualifications might be created using units from GNVQs and the more job-specific NVQs, which concentrate more on workplace training.
Universities could have the opportunity to become GNVQ- awarding bodies as long as there was an arrangement to ensure standards were comparable, it adds. Professional bodies would lead in setting standards.
Peter Wright, assistant director for quality enhancement at the Higher Education Quality Council, which was holding a conference on academic, professional and vocational qualifications today, said: "There are two reasons why higher education may be suspicious of this. One is that many of these things are happening already and there may be no reason for a new qualification. The other is the argument which says we are masters in our own house and do not want to have standards imposed on us."
Patricia Ambrose, CVCP senior administrator, added: "There is already a lot of work being done on quality and standards. We will have to look at how that relates to higher GNVQs."
John Hammond, the NCVQ's GNVQ programme coordinator, commented: "We need more coherence in the movement that is already taking place towards more unit-based assessment."