ATHES survey has found a cautious welcome for NVQs and GNVQs in higher education despite the teething problems. Tony Tysome reports.
Britain's most controversial qualifications have been given a cautious thumbs-up by principals and admissions heads in universities and colleges.
National Vocational Qualifications, constantly criticised since their launch almost a decade ago, have had a beneficial effect on post-14 education and training, say nearly half of respondents to a national survey. And General NVQs, their "broader-based" twin, are seen as beneficial by 58 per cent. Only 3 per cent think GNVQs should be scrapped and just 1 per cent want NVQs axed.
The survey, carried out by The THES as part of a research project being conducted by the University of East London, shows a high level of confidence in NVQs and GNVQs in both further and higher education, despite regular complaints that courses leading to the qualifications are hampered by red tape, are expensive to run, and are of dubious quality.
Greatest support came from the FE sector, with those feeling NVQs and GNVQs have had a damaging effect on post-14 education outnumbered by more than three to one by those seeing the qualifications as beneficial. More than two thirds (67 per cent) in FE and sixth-form colleges thought standards on NVQ and GNVQ courses were at least sufficiently reliable, with only just over a quarter (26 per cent) seeing them as unreliable.
In higher education, where experience of the qualifications is less extensive, there was a greater inclination to reserve judgement, with around a third saying they did not know whether NVQs and GNVQs had had a beneficial effect or whether their standards were reliable.
However, of those who expressed an opinion on the effect of the qualifications, supporters outnumbered the critics once again by around three to one. On quality, there was less confidence, with 38 per cent feeling standards were sufficiently reliable but 26 per cent saying they were unreliable.
The results will cheer education and employment ministers who are resting many of their hopes for a "skills revolution" - featuring a reformed and more coherent post-14 qualifications system and higher status for vocational study - on the success of NVQs and GNVQs.
The Government has almost doubled the budget of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications - the body that oversees NVQ and GNVQ development - from Pounds 12 million to Pounds 20 million. It has also earmarked Pounds 23 million for the development of GNVQs, whose popularity as a new entry route into higher education has rocketed since their introduction three years ago. It has also launched a Pounds 4 million vocational training publicity campaign.
The Government, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are all currently engaged in their own reviews of the qualifications system, with the emphasis on looking for ways to give students a broader education, mixing academic and vocational study.
Despite the apparent support for the qualifications, many colleges and universities expressed concerns about problems with the assessment and delivery of NVQs and GNVQs, and about a third thought they should be significantly reformed.
The biggest demand for change came from the FE sector, which provides most courses leading to NVQs and GNVQs. While 48 per cent of FE respondents said NVQs should be maintained with few improvements, 40 per cent thought significant changes should be made. There was greater confidence in GNVQs, with 56 per cent wanting few improvements, and 33 per cent seeing the need for reform.
Excessive bureaucracy is the biggest complaint. As one college principal put it, many feel the heavy assessment and monitoring requirements turn courses leading to the qualifications into a "paperchaser's nightmare". Some colleges criticised assessment procedures as "cumbersome in the extreme" and tests set to check standards as "a joke".
One FE coordinator complained that "students are prepared for the idiosyncracies of the tests rather than an opportunity for them to demonstrate learning". Many felt GNVQs had been introduced too quickly, and as a result staff and students were having to adjust to constant changes made to combat "teething" problems.
There was concern about standards, too. One respondent claimed: "It is certainly the case in this institution that staff have been pressured to revise registers of attendance and to re-mark borderline submissions."
Higher education admissions heads were more critical of NVQs than GNVQs, with 35 per cent wanting significant reform of NVQs against 30 per cent thinking GNVQs should be changed.
Some expressed grave reservations about NVQ approach to measuring competency ("higher education is an holistic transforming experience, not an assembly line," wrote one), or thought existing vocational qualifications should be maintained ("What was wrong with BTEC?"). Others were worried that both NVQs and GNVQs were perceived by students, employers and recruiters as an "easy option".
What the survey found
A high proportion of both further and higher education institutions are offering courses leading to National Vocational Qualifications or General NVQs - and most want to provide even more.
The survey found that 93 per cent of FE sector colleges and 45 per cent of higher education institutions are currently running NVQ programmes. In FE, 47 per cent of colleges offer higher level NVQs, broadly equivalent to degree level, and 33 per cent say they are likely to in future. In HE, 30 per cent run higher NVQ courses, and 28 per cent are planning to do so.
GNVQ courses were more popular in FE, with 95 per cent of colleges providing courses, and 80 per cent saying they are likely to run higher level GNVQs if these are introduced. Only 10 per cent of HE institutions offer GNVQ programmes, but more than half are planning to run higher GNVQ courses if they are developed.
More than a third of HE admissions heads believe staff at their institution are moderately knowledgeable about NVQs and GNVQs, while 55 per cent believe they have "a little knowledge". Only 9 per cent thought staff had hardly any knowledge of the qualifications. In FE, 39 per cent claimed their staff had a detailed knowledge of NVQs and GNVQs, and 54 per cent said they were moderately knowledgeable. Nevertheless, complaints about the "bafflingly obscure" language used by the NCVQ to describe performance criteria were common.
One sixth-form college head wrote: "While the unit descriptions and performance criteria are being rewritten in what one hopes will be plain English, the criteria often remain so generalised and vague that it is possible to consider them applicable to a PhD as much as an Intermediate level GNVQ."
GNVQs appear to be gaining ground as an entry qualification into higher education, with 72.5 per cent of institutions saying they accept candidates holding them. Forty-three per cent also say they accept applicants with NVQs.
This is encouraging considering the general view in FE that most HE admissions staff have a poor knowledge and awareness of them. One FE respondent claimed admissions staff were "in some cases even unaware of their institution's own policy" .
Higher level development
Around a fifth of respondents thought NVQs should be offered in more vocational areas at higher levels. The same proportion wanted GNVQs, which currently do not reach beyond a broad equivalent to A level, to be offered at higher levels, an issue soon to be addressed by an NCVQ discussion paper. Only 8 per cent of FE and 17.5 per cent of HE respondents thought GNVQs should not extend beyond current levels.
SURVEY METHOD AND RESPONSE:Questionnaires were sent to every United Kingdom further education sector college and higher education institution on The THES database (a total of 625 institutions in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The response rate was 50 per cent for higher education and 34.5 per cent for further education; 38 per cent overall. The findings will also be published in a University of East London discussion paper in the autumn.