NVQ peril for professions

February 24, 1995

Peter Smith points to structural and ethical damage from the vocation vision. Within the construction professions most have heard of National Vocational Qualifications; few realise their implications. Having served on a number of task forces developing NVQs I have concluded that this system of qualifications is designed to become a preferred alternative to that offered by the major professions within the industry, rendering existing professional qualifications obsolete and with them the professional institutes which award them.

Why do I think this? First, the Construction Industry Standing Conference, which is responsible for devising NVQ subjects, has excluded professional categories from its list of subjects. For example, the category "Architect" does not feature despite strong representations from the Royal Institute of British Architects Second, the NVQ levels 4 and 5 have been designed not to coincide with normal academic and professional qualification stages. While level 3 coincides with the top of the craft ladder, level 4 is described as significantly above first degree level. The top of the tree is level 5 which has been defined as well beyond the level of membership of a profession. It has been stated that a level 5 building designer is a "better product" than an architect at the point of registration.

Third, there are concerns about the titles and contents of NVQs. The example of the architect highlights the problem. In early meetings of an NVQ task force commissioned to examine level 5 within the construction industry, it was stated that the design contribution of the architect would be safeguarded. Yet the latest draft of the building design level 5 NVQ mirrors the job description of the architect with add-ons to justify its superior status.

It is the view of those in the driving seat of NVQs that architects should be confined to applying the aesthetic to a building. The chairman of the Architectural Technology Working Group has said that "an architect's role is finished after the first third of the design and production process".

The architect's role is being usurped by overlapping NVQs such as those of the building designer and architectural technologist. It is also being parcelled-up into a variety of discrete NVQ packages. A quasi-professional structure is being designed to marginalise the profession. Civil, structural and services engineers will face a similar threat.

There are arguments in favour of NVQs up to level 3. The problem lies in the quantum shift from craft-based skills to professional qualifications which make great intellectual demands on candidates. While NVQ levels 4 and 5 are now being awarded on a pilot basis, there is evidence that CISC has no idea how to assess the underpinning knowledge central to all the professions.

A report on pilot projects recently to CISC stated: "One of the problems which the pilots did not solve was that of assessing underpinning knowledge of theories, principles and methods . . . On the other hand, the performance evidence collected . . . enabled the assessors to make judgements about candidates' competence".

Candidates at a level considered to be well beyond professional qualification are deemed competent without any assessment of their underpinning knowledge. Alan Osborne, CISC chair, stated that this problem had yet to be solved and that "there should be a three to four-year amnesty on underpinning knowledge". So, for up to four years hence, NVQ levels 4 and 5 will be awarded without evaluation of "theories, principles and methods".

How can a brief, highly selective, work-based assessment compare with the seven years of assessment demanded by the Royal Institute of British Architects and similarly for civil and structural engineers? The Department for Education has praised architectural education for its mix of theory and practice. This highlights a further anomaly in that the NVQ process is being driven by the Department of Employment.

Is the introduction of NVQs in the public interest? (the Government's justification). The answer is "yes" up to level 3 but "no" when it comes to professional qualifications. The chartered institutes emerged out of concern for the public interest. These bodies defined the nature and level of the skills their members offered. The public has a fair idea of the nature of a chartered architect or engineer. How will it perceive a level 5 building designer? Such a person can arrive at that level from any direction within the construction industry. What is the nature of their underpinning knowledge? It is claimed that the system reduces the complexity of skills within the industry. Yet professional identities are being split into a profusion of NVQ topics. So much for reducing complexity.

A great cause for concern is the question of accountability. Professional institutes have a system for disciplining their members. The public has redress through the institutes which have the sanction of expelling members. Members of a professional body submit to a code of ethics which transcends common law. How will a client obtain redress for the mistakes or unethical conduct of a level 5 building designer except through common law?

Will the outcome be a free market with open competition between traditionally qualified professionals and new breed NVQ-ites? At the moment tax relief is available to any professional undertaking continuous professional development leading to an NVQ. It is not available to a person reading for a part-time post-qualification higher degree. Already the playing field is tilting. When there are enough players in the field then the Government will probably want NVQ qualifications from their consultants, regardless of their professional qualifications.

This is the most serious threat to the professions in their chartered existence. The NVQ system is designed to render professionals redundant and their professional institutes obsolete. The aim must be to transfer vocational education from universities to the workplace with awful implications for both the industry and the universities.

Peter Smith has negotiated over NVQs for the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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