The next contentious issue to surface in higher education looks likely to be the future of higher level General National Vocational Qualifications. An apparently innocuous consultation paper is the focus. The unpublished paper sets out proposals for the new higher level GNVQs. It has just been redrafted in the light of responses from institutions, employers and professional bodies, and is in the hands of the Secretary of State.
In its original form the paper contained many radical proposals, such as replacing Higher National Diplomas with level 4 GNVQs and the creation of a new two-year "associate degree". Most of these have now been dropped, and in their place is a proposed agenda for a less aggressive route towards vaguer goals.
The plans pave the way for a potentially vast array of new higher level GNVQ units which institutions and professional bodies could use to construct courses of all shapes and sizes. In the name of flexibility, universities could pick off-the-shelf nationally-accredited and vocationally-relevant GNVQ units, and match them with home-grown units or modules to form whole programmes. These GNVQ elements could become the vocational "core" of otherwise non-vocational courses, giving students a head start when they enter professional training or the labour market. This could fit neatly with ideas being pushed by ministers and likely to be pursued by the Dearing higher education inquiry as it takes up from the recent review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds.
Dearing 2 will be asked to look at how higher education could become more flexible and responsive to the needs of students and employers and whether comparable standards across the sector can be achieved. The latter is also under consideration by the Higher Education Quality Council, which could be asked to work with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications on higher level GNVQ standards.
But the worry is that these proposals may amount to inviting institutions to "build your own national curriculum". Of course, universities may resist such an invitation, perhaps shunning GNVQ units altogether. But they would not be the only players in this game. Universities might feel they have too much to lose, but further education colleges could have everything to gain by building higher level GNVQ programmes. With national standards built into the units, FE colleges, as well as universities, could gain awarding body status. If they did so en masse, and such courses proved popular, universities might be forced to compete.
The prospect of universities and colleges becoming GNVQ awarding bodies might well pull the existing awarding bodies - BTEC, City and Guilds and RSA - into the fray. BTEC, which awards the most GNVQs, has been fighting to stop HNDs being swallowed up in the GNVQ framework. Having apparently won that point, BTEC is unlikely to be ready to hand over to universities and colleges.
Universities had been warned. Three years ago the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' vocational qualifications working group described the impact of higher level GNVQs as a "potential bombshell". The bomb is now primed. It needs handling with care.