Universities and colleges could soon build their own national curriculum out of off-the-shelf units to be offered to further and higher education.
Institutions will be encouraged to join forces with professional bodies to design new kinds of courses using a mixture of home-grown modules and the proposed higher level General National Vocational Qualification units.
Plans are outlined in a consultation paper redrafted by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications following responses from institutions, professional bodies and employers, and now being considered by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
The GNVQ units, which could eventually become the components of full GNVQs at levels 4 and 5 - deemed broadly equivalent to degree and postgraduate levels - might help develop standards nationally comparable across higher education. They could be awarded by universities operating individually or in consortia, or by further education colleges.
The NCVQ is hoping to persuade the Higher Education Quality Council to help establish the units, which could be offered in a wide range of vocational areas, and might form a vocational core in otherwise non-vocational programmes.
In its response to the consultation paper, the HEQC said it would be happy to collaborate with NCVQ in considering developments in this area. Peter Wright, HEQC assistant director, said introducing the units need not involve any more outside influence on courses than is exerted by professional bodies. "What is not yet clear is how many professional bodies are interested in higher GNVQs," he said.
In its redraft the NCVQ has dropped plans to press ahead with the creation of whole GNVQs in the short term. Unpopular proposals for higher GNVQs to replace Higher National Diplomas and to form two-year associate degrees have also gone.
But the proposed development instead of higher GNVQ units could allow universities and FE colleges to build courses of different types and lengths. This idea would fit in with the task of creating a more flexible higher education sector, to be tackled by Sir Ron Dearing and his committee of inquiry into higher education.
John Hillier, NCVQ chief executive, said many of the features of GNVQs, including the assessment of learning outcomes and of so-called "core" skills such as numeracy and use of information technology, had proved very popular among institutions. Sources told The THES this week that over 70 per cent of universities supported these features in the consultation. "In a lot of cases GNVQ units could fit well within the existing higher education structure," Mr Hillier said.