HE's national curriculum

November 17, 1995

The NCVQ's consultation paper on higher level GNVQs heralds a sea change in power and control of what is taught in universities, says Ronald Barnett.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications consultation paper GNVQs at Higher Levels proposes a development of fundamental significance in higher education. In comparison with either the research assessment or the teaching assessment exercise, for example, the ideas being floated in this paper concern directly the educational process and what we take higher education to be.

The NCVQ introduced General National Vocational Qualifications as part of a national framework of 16-19 vocational qualifications. There are two kinds of qualification: National Vocational Qualifications which are work-based and are built on units of assessment of individuals' competence in specific work situations; and GNVQs, which are intended to develop more general competences and core skills.

In coming forward now with proposals to extend GNVQs into higher education, the NCVQ is not a disinterested party. The Government has invited the council to extend its qualifications framework into higher education. The paper admits that "it is assumed that . . . higher level GNVQs, if introduced, will have the same fundamental features which have made GNVQs at lower levels successful". But the idea that GNVQs at the lower levels have been successful is a large assumption.

There is a link with the lower levels about which the paper is quite open. "The existence of higher level GNVQs would enhance people's perception of foundation, intermediate and advanced GNVQs." In other words, higher education is being enlisted here to endorse the existing framework. That the general model itself might be in need of radical examination, especially insofar as it relates to higher education, is never raised as an issue.

The paper suggests that many young people will be going on to higher education with GNVQs and that higher education has, therefore, a responsibility to offer programmes which build on that experience and so provide "a clear framework of qualifications". But this is question-begging. It by no means follows that because entrants have had a certain kind of experience that higher education has to mirror that experience.

It might be said that this document merely looks to a more explicit codification of what is done already on the best courses in vocationally oriented higher education. But such a response - if it was forthcoming - would be an evasion. For either what is proposed represents no real change, in which case, why this consultative process? Or a real change is being proposed, in which case we should be told explicitly what it is and why it is being introduced.

Another justification hinges on the supposedly progressive features of curriculum design and operation that GNVQs will herald. More responsibility for their own learning on the part of students, unit-based programmes and credit systems are warmly cited. That these already exist in plenty is hardly acknowledged. What, then, is to be distinctive about these features in the context of GNVQs? We are not told. This is an unconvincing document.

There is in the paper no serious account of the NCVQ model of curriculum and assessment, of the differences between outcomes and competences, or of the state of the debate over knowledge in relation to the conceptual framework of the NCVQ approach. The NCVQ's key concept of "outcomes" is given no serious treatment, but in what sense can or should the development of mind appropriate to higher education be termed "an outcome"?

Key concepts in higher education such as understanding, critical thinking, and creativity are absent and the term "research" appears not once. We have to wonder what conception of higher education is at work here.

In less than half a page, the "essential characteristics of GNVQs" are described, in which we are told that "the distinctive characteristics of GNVQs, apart from their vocational orientation, are the priority they place on core skills and other cognitive skills". This is a trivial description. We are entitled to know in what way the "vocational orientation" of GNVQs differs from that of the vocational orientation of traditional courses. We are also entitled to know what is meant by core skills.

NCVQ assumes (presumably) that it has written an accessible document to which readers can easily respond. But what is one to make of: "outcome standards"; "(units of achievement) which can be separately assessed and certificated"; "portfolio"; "vocational content"; "explicit outcomes"; "core skills"; "generic skills"; "competence-based approaches"; and "higher level competences"?

This discourse springs from a particular conception of education and training - seen largely as the production of pre-defined behavioural competences - which is nowhere set out in the document and which deserves critical scrutiny if the incorporation of the NCVQ model into higher education is to be seriously addressed.

The paper exhibits many of the classic signs of ideology. It embodies a social project, it claims a view of the world and of the character of personal formation to bring that world about, it imposes a discourse and it reflects deep-seated interests. Furthermore, it attempts to marginalise the academic community in favour of other parties: professional bodies are to be invited to take the lead in determining GNVQs, students are to be given responsibility for their learning, and the voice of others from industry and elsewhere is to be reflected.

The largest player in all this, though, is the state. The document heralds in public - perhaps for the first time - a state managed national curriculum for higher education. Possibilities are raised here for GNVQs to assume the proportions of two-thirds of an honours degree. What is on offer here, therefore, is a sea change in the power and control of the university curriculum.

We need urgently a serious debate about the higher education curriculum. Higher education has a responsibility to encourage the highest forms of learning, human capacities of critical self-reflection and collaborative learning. Such capacities are appropriate to a world of change because they are capacities which can help to bring about worthwhile change. There is no theoretical or empirical warrant for believing that the NCVQ framework is adequate to this large task. But nor should we assume that higher education is itself succeeding in it.

We need radical new thinking about and new approaches towards curricular purposes and processes. It is also entirely right that, in the mass higher education system which we now have, the possibility of a shorter first stage (equivalent to two-thirds of an honours degree) should be vigorously explored. But this is not the document on which to base such debates. In responding to it, universities should exercise extreme caution.

Ronald Barnett is professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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