New diplomas face admissions hurdle

October 19, 2007

Ucas head warns vocational qualifications are 'invisible' to admissions officers. Rebecca Attwood reports. Some universities are treating vocational qualifications as "invisible", according to the universities' admissions chief.

Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, warned last week that universities needed to do more to attract students with vocational backgrounds as part of their effort to meet the Government's ambitious target to get more than 40 per cent of adults obtaining a higher level qualification by 2020.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and sponsored by The Times Higher , Mr McClaran said that Ucas had found evidence of a "lack of knowledge and understanding" among some admissions officers about vocational qualifications, while many universities still failed to provide clear guidance to vocational applicants.

Currently 84 per cent of A-level students progress to university, compared with around half of those who opt for the vocational route.

Mr McClaran said that targets to ensure that adults possess higher level skills, the predicted demographic downturn in the proportion of 18-year- olds and the forthcoming arrival of the new 14-19 diploma were incentives to "intensify" the efforts already being made to encourage students with vocational qualifications to progress to higher education.

"These targets are unlikely to be achieved by a further expansion of the current model of higher education ... Part of that picture must include consideration of ways in which vocational learners can be brought in greater numbers into higher education."

Mr McClaran said the most recent figures from Ucas show that 93 per cent of higher education institutions specify the entry requirements for students holding A levels, but for the advanced Vocational Certificate of Education this dropped to 81 per cent, for Btec national diplomas to 55 per cent, and for some national diplomas to just 21 per cent.

"There is no evidence at all of direct discrimination on the part of admissions offices against students progressing with vocational qualifications, but there is some evidence of lack of knowledge and lack of understanding," he told the conference, Skills, Vocational Qualifications and Employer Engagement: A New Agenda for Education.

"In many cases the entry requirements don't exist, they are simply not listed - it is as if the qualification is invisible."

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, criticised the Government's skills agenda, which urges universities to be "business- facing" and tailor courses and research more explicitly to employers' needs.

"I think the underlying assumption, which I frankly don't accept, is that we are not producing courses that align with the needs of employers. That's not the feedback that I get from professional associations I work very, very closely with," he said.

He also said there could be "great dangers" in an employer-driven higher education model. There would be a clear conflict of interest if a business were designing and funding degree courses provided by a university department that, for example, had an academic "looking at their business and raising serious questions about their viability, or someone else looking at their ethical practices and criticising them".

"It is very, very important, just as universities are a critical friend of Government, that they are a critical friend of employers of all kinds ... and that is something we put at jeopardy if we become over-dependent."

Professor Driscoll said the new 14-19 diplomas would prove to be "a failed experiment" while they were offered in parallel with A levels. He said that as long as there were two separate qualifications for academic and vocational work "parity of esteem" would be "absolutely dead in the water".

A report published by Hepi this year found no evidence of prejudice against vocational qualifications and concluded that the bigger problem was students with A levels who do not choose to go to university.

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