The government says its 14-19 initiative will construct a clear route to higher education. But critics disagree. Tony Tysome reports.
A revamped modern apprenticeship that could provide a vocational route to the foundation degree is proposed by the green paper, which also refloats the idea of an overarching diploma to help smooth over the unhelpful distinction between vocational and academic qualifications.
The proposals' supporters see them as another step towards building a coherent path from school or work to further and higher education that does not have to follow traditional academic lines.
Many believe this is the only way to achieve the government's targets for widening participation and providing 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds with the opportunity to benefit from higher education.
But others see the plans as yet another initiative designed to patch up parts of the system that are not working, resulting in confusion and a dilution of standards.
New modern apprenticeships and a diploma would be added to vocational GCSEs, vocational A levels, national vocational qualifications, the foundation degree and graduate apprenticeships.
A consultation paper from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Learning and Skills Council argues that if the participation target is to be met, it will be vital to support increases in the demand for, and completion rates of, vocational courses, as well as progression from them into higher education.
The paper, Partnerships for Progression , suggests that entry through work-based learning will play a vital part, since there are nearly 1 million 21 to 30-year-olds with level 3 (roughly equivalent to A level) qualifications who did not choose higher education.
While supporting changes to encourage these new routes should not mean lowering standards, "that does not mean that the range and nature of HE programmes currently on offer does not need to change", it says.
Some higher education leaders said that significant changes have already been made by universities and colleges, and that the biggest barriers to progression for students who are vocationally rather than academically inclined are in the school system.
Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and chairman of the University Vocational Awards Council, pointed out that much of higher education was already vocational.
"In higher education the academic/vocational divide has all but disappeared," he said. "But my observation is that in pre-higher education there is that distinction, which goes back to the old grammar and secondary modern schools division."
Nevertheless, Professor Wagner does believe higher education has an important role to play in helping to bring about cultural changes in school, a task that many have started to address through the government's recent Aim Higher initiative.
"It's not just the qualifications framework that is an enabling device. It will make it easier if other things are in place, such as efforts to raise people's aspirations," he said.
Molly Temple, principal of Bolton Institute, which is also a member of UVAC, thinks the government's proposed changes are a step in the right direction. She believes higher education should be prepared to adapt to accommodate the new kinds of applicants it could see as a result.
"For many young people, vocational and work-based routes are the only practical path they can take," she said. "They come from backgrounds where there is a need to engage in some work that is going to bring in some money from a relatively early age."
Some broader thinking from admissions officers was needed, she suggested.
"The kind of experience people get coming through the vocational route often involves them in real work, not just work experience. Higher education will have to look at how it accommodates for the fact that these people are coming in without academic experience but with other learning skills," she said.
Some academics are more sceptical about how successful the government's latest vocational initiatives are likely to be in creating a coherent system that is flexible and clear enough to appeal to those who have so far been deterred from post-school education and training.
David Robertson, head of policy development at Liverpool John Moores University, does not believe there are signs yet of a clear government policy on vocational qualifications.
"The problem is I don't think the government is sure which model it is pursuing," he said. "They can either go for the American model, accept that they are working in an education and training market, and not try to force the vocational issue on to higher education. Or they can go down the German dual-model route, where the academic and vocational have separate traditions. If they try to blur them, they could end up with the worst of both worlds, rather than the best of both models."
Professor Robertson advocates creating a "climbing frame" of routes and qualifications that allows students to progress in a variety of ways, rather than having parallel academic and vocational "ladders" with bridges between them. Having this kind of flexible structure, backed up by a national credit system, was more important that creating new qualifications, he said.
"It's not the level of vocational opportunities in HE that deters the working class, it's a whole set of other factors to do with what we offer. Possibly what we offer does need to be more vocational, but that doesn't mean we need to produce a whole set of new qualifications," he said.
The Hefce-LSC consultation paper suggests that closer collaboration between further and higher education, backed by "significant" extra funding to support progression initiatives, is the key to opening access. But, according to Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality for the Association of Colleges, this will not help unless higher education is prepared to broaden its entry requirements.
"The latest government initiatives, such as Curriculum 2000, have been bedevilled by the fact that HE can choose whether it takes any notice or not. Students are not stupid - they are not going to do something if they do not need to do it to achieve whatever they are aiming for, or if it is not going to help them. That is one argument for making a new diploma the only game in town."
But Robin Smith, pro vice-chancellor of Anglia Polytechnic University, argued that institutions such as his own were already doing a great deal to ensure that vocational routes into and in higher education were taken as seriously as the academic. He acknowledged though that in general there were "still some pretty big obstacles to overcome".
He said: "Part of the national culture is to look down on vocational subjects and stress the academic much more. Employers could do a great deal to help break down those prejudices. That is where I think the new modern apprenticeship could help, especially as we are beginning to develop more foundation degrees. The link from apprenticeships into foundation degrees is much more visible than into traditional academic courses."
Professor Smith said one of the biggest problems was not so much changing the requirements of institutions as managing students' aspirations and expectations.
"One thing we are finding is that many of the students who come in from school come with some fairly traditional attitudes themselves. If they come to do a single honours, it is quite difficult to get them to realise that it can be a good thing for them to do a bit of work experience as well," he said.
Professor Wagner suggested that the greatest danger in the government's reforms is that vocational qualifications could be seen as a softer option for those who dropped out of school or that vocational routes into higher education amounted to a lowering of standards.
"The idea that there might be vocational routes for the less able has to be treated with care," he said. "The word 'higher' means these are qualifications of a certain nature that will not be for everyone. HE has to be for the intellectually able. But a definition of who is intellectually able is, and should be, a broad one."
A survey of further education colleges conducted by the Institute of Education on behalf of lecturers' union Natfhe found that many of the post-16 curriculum changes made so far through Curriculum 2000 have been seen as a backward step.
More than half of colleges thought reforms of advanced-level qualifications, including the introduction of the "vocational A level", marked a change for the worse, the survey found. A third of colleges said they were barely coping with the changes and 87 per cent stated that the introduction of "key skills" was difficult to manage.