Students with vocational qualifications are getting into top research universities, it was revealed this week. Others are bypassing universities and landing higher paid jobs than traditional graduates.
Some of the most prestigious universities have offered places to hundreds of applicants holding Advanced General National Vocational Qualifications - deemed equivalent to A levels.
This will be a relief to GNVQ awarding bodies and colleges running vocational A level courses, following heavy criticism of the qualification's assessment regime by Government inspectors, and calls by ministers for a quality clampdown.
Research conducted by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications found that around 20,000 students holding GNVQs have been offered higher education places this year by more than 170 institutions. More than 90 per cent of GNVQ applicants were successful - those with just GNVQs doing as well as those combining them with A levels.
Most of the offers have come from new universities, with some taking on thousands of GNVQ entrants. But around 10 per cent were made by old universities, which have traditionally favoured applicants with A levels.
The findings will be announced next week by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, when she unveils this year's GNVQ results. She is expected to suggest that the results show GNVQs are gaining wider acceptance.
But the results are likely to show only a small improvement in completion rates. Last year the NCVQ came under fire when it was revealed that by August 1995 only 13,000 out of 42,000 Advanced GNVQ students who embarked on courses in 1992 and 1993 had gained the full qualification.
Meanwhile a Government-commissioned report published this week revealed that students who take top-level vocational qualifications rather than degrees are more likely to have a highly paid job than traditional graduates.
According to The Economic Returns To Graduates, a Government-commissioned survey of 2,114 people by the Policy Studies Institute, non-graduates with national vocational level 4 qualifications earn considerably more than graduates in their early to mid-20s. For the male graduate, the net hourly rate is Pounds 5.03. For the male non-graduate with a NVQ level 4, the rate is Pounds 5.46 - an extra Pounds 895 per year. A male non-graduate with a NVQ level 4 can earn annually nearly Pounds 1,500 more than a female graduate.
Also, by their mid-20s, highly qualified non-graduates spend more time in paid work than the typical graduate. So successful are some non-graduates with high level vocational qualifications that they can land traditional graduate jobs.
Author Alex Bryson said "the NVQ Level 4 courses are not duff qualifications, and the wages employers are prepared to pay demonstrate this". He added that graduates do face a "pay-penalty" in their early careers, but suggested that a degree will "stand students in good stead as they reach occupational maturity".
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Brunel University, a long-time critic of the vocational qualifications system, acknowledged that the academic route is not always the best preparation for some careers. "There are many university courses which are quasi-vocational - like media studies, travel and tourism or theatre studies. They are attractive sounding. The trouble is that they don't link into employment opportunities."
But he said that NVQ level 4 is a rare qualification, taken by people who are already skilled. "It is a recognition of the job being done and does not usually play a significant part in actually getting a job."