Mired in trivialities

September 15, 1995

This has been a ridiculous summer. The GCSE/A level standards debate is an annual ritual but this year has seen additional hysteria over "worthless" degrees, too easy entry to higher education and supposed graduate unemployment.

In an outburst of national self-mortification, the performance of young people has been belittled, universities' and colleges' attempts to offer people a second chance have been sneered at, and the notion has been spread abroad that British higher education is going down the tube. All this without, or perhaps as a means of avoiding, addressing the underlying issues: how people should qualify for our expanded higher education system and how the bills should be paid.

Both issues are politically taboo. This week both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition have been speaking about education. No word about higher education. Why not? Because everyone knows what will have to be done: pre-university qualifications must be brought into a single system to provide a coherent way of qualifying large numbers of young people and extra money must be found from students. Universities should not be having to undertake remedial teaching to make good the inadequacies of school leaving qualifications. Students, who benefit from higher lifetime earnings, should contribute more to the cost of their education. But resistance to such change is formidable, supporters few.

In a logical world these things would have been sorted out before expansion took us from a highly esteemed elite system to a mass system. That was the time for a Royal Commission only now being called for by the Association of University Teachers. But the scale and speed of expansion was largely unexpected. No serious thought was therefore given to the qualifications needed to prepare a sufficiently large cohort for university entry and when entry numbers outran A levels vocational qualifications were offered as an alternative with scant attention paid to their suitability.

Yet much has been achieved. Walter Eltis, in his recent pamphlet for the Foundation for Manufacturing and Industry charting the improvement in Britain's competitiveness compared to France and Germany, attributes part of our recent success in manufacturing industry to improved supply of skilled people and to better educated and qualified management. If so, efforts to get more people into engineering and business studies should not be denigrated as they have been this summer.

But it is also clear from both Professor Eltis's report and the World Economic Forum's report that if we are improving, we are not improving fast enough.

We need now, Professor Eltis says, to translate the quality improvements in industry into higher quantity and to extend them to service industries - he cites hotels and restaurants as an example, another area where university activity is mocked. This means carrying into the elite parts of higher education - those which recruit top students and overwhelmingly feed the service sector - the kinds of change in approach which have marked business and management and engineering so far.

No wonder politicians avoid higher education. But avoiding the subject will not make the issue of qualifications nor the question of money go away. Indeed, outside the limelight, the hunt is on for a solution more rapid than a Royal Commission. This week proposals are published which might provide it.

Hedged around with tentative phrases about consultation, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications' proposals for GNVQs at levels four and five amount to reinvention of general degrees but on a national basis with externally set standards and assessments. It is easy to see how this could be floated on a wave of public concern about diverging degree standards. It offers a natty solution to the difficulties inherent in credit accumulation and transfer. Furthermore, it would be easy to link public funding to these national qualifications, leaving individuals or employers to pay for extra study for professional qualifications or honours degrees. Labour has long flirted with such ideas.

Universities will have a hard time resisting - if they are so minded - particularly as autonomy would be the main grounds and autonomy is not something much valued by those currently excited over standards. Higher education therefore needs to take the NCVQ's proposals seriously, in particular the questions: who should set the standards for higher level GNVQs and who should award them?

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