I'm sold on diplomas

Many youngsters leave school unfit for university or work. Diplomas can change that, believes Claudio Vignali

April 17, 2008

The familiarity of existing systems can be comforting, even when these systems are failing. Change, meanwhile, can be unsettling and disliked, even when it is beneficial. These paradoxes explain much of the recent criticism from certain sections of higher education about the Government's new diplomas.

Doubters raise the spectre of the diplomas lacking solid content. They question their robustness. They fret that diplomas may meet the needs of neither shop floor nor lecture theatre. They worry that diploma students' knowledge might be less than that of their A-level counterparts. It's time to take a good look at the hard realities of today's world.

Our secondary education standards are now way behind those in much of the Western world. Some youngsters are leaving school with a lack of basic skills. Many can't read or write adequately, never mind think logically in the way that higher education requires. The A-level system perpetuates these problems: it is too specific. It gives us young people with theoretical knowledge of three subjects, yet who have failed to gain acceptable standards in English, mathematics and IT - the three key subjects for today. And it gives us young people who have a narrow classroom understanding of life, with limited or no experience of the world of work and poor interpersonal skills.

I am convinced that diplomas offer us a timely and hopeful new beginning. By combining work-specific skills and practical workplace experience with good academic knowledge of the three Rs and IT, they will produce more rounded and developed young people who have greater understanding of life and are better able to interact with others. Whether diploma students choose work or university, they will be more effective thinkers, doers and communicators, with practical skills from the off.

Better still, diplomas are rooted in the real world: they are targeted at the 17 work disciplines most crucial for the country's growth, including my own, retail. At present there is not one national curriculum qualification for retail even though it is the UK's single largest employer: it accounts for more than 3 million workers at the moment, and 1 million more will be needed in the coming years. As with other key employment sectors, we see our specific diploma as being critical to the future success of our business.

As a professor of retail marketing management at Leeds Metropolitan University, I'm part of the steering group for the diploma in retail. Being an external examiner for a number of UK universities, I am familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of many retail academic programmes.

Key to our work has been a detailed vision of how future retail students will add value to our particular industry and to higher education in today's difficult university environment. With a wide range of stakeholders, we have extensively researched, debated, tested and revised the core structure and topics of the diploma, which will be offered at foundation (Level 1), higher (Level 2) and advanced (Level 3) from 2010.

We now have a provisional product that at Level 3 would be equivalent to three and a half A levels and that meets the exacting needs of academia, industry and students alike. Our diploma will make the first year of a degree much easier for students to understand than at present. It encourages students to develop that extra comprehension and experience of our industry and life in general, meaning those who choose not to go to university will be able to hit the ground running with their first employers.

No surprise, then, that my fellow academics are solidly behind this diploma. Rather than criticise, higher education's diploma moaners would do better to get involved, to ensure that each of these new qualifications is as robust and promising as ours.

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