Merger at the ministry

July 21, 1995

As an ex-DFE official who supported many of Geoffrey Holland's ideas about the relationship between education and employment, perhaps I might enter the debate between him and Mary Warnock (THES, July 14).

It is possible that the "Employment Department culture" as represented by Holland has tended at times to blur distinctions between types and levels of learning that are important if knowledge, and learners, are to be developed to their full potential beyond purely utilitarian constraints.

But Warnock exaggerates the differences and the dangers. She admits that universities have classically been in the business of "contributing to the training" of certain professions. Yet she deplores the passing of the binary divide because it might lead to the exaltation of the vocational (which she subtly implies is, at ex-polytechnics, of a lower standard) over against the academic. Surely this confuses two issues - one about relative academic standards and one about the relative merit of vocational education and its congruence with or opposition to academic ideals.

Need there be an opposition? The spectre of motor mechanics receiving degrees for learning which is without genuine intellectual content is a hoary one - but I have never seen such ghosts. Certainly, there is a need to define just what a degree is, and the Higher Education Quality Council is currently undertaking some valuable work on this - and maybe, as NIACE (An Adult Higher Education, 1994) argued, some existing degrees would not measure up to a rigorous definition. But it is not only possible that vocational study can be academically respectable. It is also essential.

Warnock is right to say that education must be the dominant partner in the "marriage". But she fails to recognise the extent to which the more enlightened "vocationalists" would agree with her. In the "knowledge society" there is no need to posit a disjunction between the academic and the vocational. Employers more and more need precisely those skills which the academic tradition develops. But they need to be - and can be - developed in a way which will make them relevant to the working world, without losing their inner integrity.

There are, of course, short-sighted employers, politicians and others (including some academics) who do not recognise this. But those who stand in Warnock's distinguished tradition would do better to make common cause with the more far-sighted "vocationalists" than caricature and oppose the vocational tradition. The merger of government departments may prove in practice, at least in higher education, to have little more than symbolic effect. But symbols are powerful. And, without endorsing all of Holland's prescriptions (some of which are, as Sir Humphrey might have said, "courageous") I urge your readers to see how they can best build on this particular symbol so as to establish more firmly the place of higher education in the knowledge society.

Anthony Woollard 38 Draycott Place, London SW3

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