Standard bearer

Michael Arthur, higher education's new representative on the QCA board, is a champion of the 14-19 diplomas.

January 31, 2008

Rather than moaning about the quality of students entering higher education, Michael Arthur is determined to help do something about the problem.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds has just been appointed to the board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the body responsible for the national curriculum. He is the only vice-chancellor on the board; he and a professor from the Institute of Education make up the higher education sector's total representation.

"It is my duty to get involved from a higher education perspective," he said. "The QCA is the guardian of standards (in schools), and closer relations on curriculum issues between schools and universities is important."

The QCA is developing the next tranche of 14-19 diplomas, the controversial new university entry qualifications that the Government believes could become more popular than A levels. And Professor Arthur is an enthusiastic supporter.

The first five diplomas, which include engineering, are ready to be delivered to the first group of students from September. Five others have been prepared for the following year. There will subsequently be nine more, covering areas such as science, languages and humanities.

The diplomas have been controversial because they do away with the divide between vocational and academic qualifications and also involve workplace training. But the attacks on their value have been "overblown", said Professor Arthur, who has advised the Department for Children, Schools and Families on them. In 2006, the DCSF named him a "diploma champion", giving him the job of raising awareness and understanding of the reforms.

"It is an opportunity to bring a different style of learning to 14-19 education. The academic content (thus far) is more than adequate for entry into university," he said, adding that there is no way he would advocate the qualification to a room full of engineering professors unless he was sure on that point. He also said that there was a "good chance" diplomas would replace A levels.

Professor Arthur's background is in medical research. He was appointed at Leeds in 2004 after serving as dean of the University of Southampton's medicine faculty. He admitted to being "slightly self-interested" in the diplomas because, having attended a comprehensive school himself, he thinks they will help widen participation.

"We have to work harder at getting people through education beyond 16. Most people learn better in problem-oriented education when the learning is contextualised. It is not about learning the anatomy of the knee," he said.

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