Not just a passing problem

November 18, 1994

A handful of self-appointed malcontents? Or a growing number of professionals wishing to express genuine concerns about declining academic standards in Britain's unwieldy vocational qualifications system? Whatever the answer it is evident some lecturers in further education colleges are unhappy about something.

Whether the college sector is being discredited by a small group of politically motivated troublemakers, or indeed by macho management obsessed with league-table ratings, is a question inextricably bound up with deteriorating relationships between the authorities and lecturing staff.

At the moment, disenchantment can be uncovered with relative ease in the majority of further education colleges. Their fiercely competitive environment, coupled with an output-driven funding methodology and broken-down industrial relations, have brought about a cultural shift many in the sector are finding difficult. The stakes are high in today's payment-by-results climate and some tough tactics are perhaps justified.

But college staff complain of being driven off course by reckless management. Grave injustices are, they say, being perpetrated almost daily and they want the world to know.

Amid bitter struggles to resist new working conditions adopted by their employers to meet efficiency targets, there is a conviction growing among lecturers that colleges are placing subtle but intolerable pressure on lecturers to push through, in many cases against their better judgement, ever-increasing numbers of students studying for vocational qualifications. Some claim a no-fail policy is in operation because of the pressure on finances.

The evidence for such claims has been dismissed by college authorities as anecdotal, anonymous and politically driven. And indeed much of the correspondence received by The THES in recent weeks has been based on claims that are impossible to substantiate. Many of these complaints have been coordinated by two bodies, Cafas, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, and Article 26, a pressure group formed this year to conduct a campaign against the alleged corruption of vocational and training by the certification of incompetent students.

Cafas says it has been approached by more than 100 further education lecturers concerned about declining GNVQ standards in the past six months alone. Unexpectedy for Cafas, the majority of its members have turned out to be from further education. Most of the complainants will not bring their worries into the open for fear of reprisals from management.

Biman Ghosh is prepared to be named, however, so strong is his sense of injustice. He is a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University who has spoken out against declining BTEC standards. He has faced disciplinary proceedings.

At least half the students in one of his classes should not be there at all, he says, as their maths is too weak. The real issue, according to Mr Ghosh, revolves around methods of student assessment, in particular the merits of continuous assessment as opposed to a rigorous exam-based approach.

Ideally all students should be measured using continuous assessment, says Mr Ghosh. But without proper resourcing, the method quickly breaks down. In one recent homework assignment just five of Mr Ghosh's 58 students got the work right. The rest all made the same mistake. "This cannot be coincidence and suggested to me that they were working together," he says, adding that under such circumstances students could not possibly be assessed properly.

It has been a persistent theme of the complainants that no safeguards exist in the verification system to guard against "plagiarism". Graham Sharp, a lecturer who says he was told by his college not to fail students, believes the BTEC verification system falls down on this very point.

"The verifier has no way of knowing whether work was actually written by the student whose name appears upon the front sheet. This is not a minor issue. Generally speaking assignments on BTEC, GNVQ or NVQ courses are completed in the student's own time. Nearly everyone who has marked project or assignment work must sometimes have wondered whether a student has had help at home or copied from books or other students," he said.

BTEC's attitude is that external verifiers will easily notice if groups are producing identical work. About 1,400 external verifiers are employed by BTEC. They scrutinise the work of every lecturer although not, they stress, of every student. That is the proper responsibility of the schools and colleges. Samples of students' work are checked, however, at least one sample from each lecturer and at least one from each unit of a course. The verifier has complete control over the sampling of work.

But BTEC does agree that much of the concern expressed about vocational standards stems from the real issue, which is continuous assessment.

This is far more demanding for lecturers than most A-level programmes, which are assessed via written exams, BTEC says. Many of the concerns are said to be rooted in lecturers' discontent at the extra workload implied by continuous assessment even though the majority of lecturers agree that it is a better method for vocational students, many of whom have already been failed by the memory-based exam system.

BTEC denies that there is a 100 per cent pass-rate policy, and points out that in 1992, 65 per cent of students were awarded an HND on the engineering programme and 21 per cent were awarded nothing. The other 14 per cent were told to retake the course. Since the introduction of the GNVQ system, BTEC says it has tightened up its verification procedures and is introducing standard assignments to help lecturers understand what is required of students. It will investigate complaints from lecturers but it is hampered by the need to retain the confidentiality of complainants. Nevertheless, over the past year 12 centres have been "put through a fine sieve" and approval has been withdrawn from five.

Responsibility for standards is shared between validating bodies such as BTEC and the college delivering the course. BTEC undertakes to ensure that standards meet its criteria and before a course can gain approval equipment and resourcing are checked. Once the course is under way, assistance is given in steering lecturers to the right level of student assessment both internally and through the external verification procedures.

The real stumbling block appears to occur when disputes blow up in individual colleges over assessment procedures. BTEC stresses that it is not an adjudicator between college staff and management and its external verifiers should not be drawn into that role. As a result, lecturers fearing pressure to lower standards and push greater numbers of students through feel they have nowhere to go. Job insecurity dissuades many from airing their concerns publicly, preferring instead anonymous routes offered by pressure groups such as Article 26. BTEC's verification procedures are described by Article 26 as "hopelessly inadequate for stopping the corruption of vocational standards and qualifications and for ensuring parity of esteem compared with academic qualifications such as A levels."

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