Taxiing towards Terminal 5

Diplomas represent a big departure in education, but they raise worrying questions for universities, says John Brooks

May 15, 2008

Universities depend on an effective 14-19 education system to populate our courses and provide the academic and intellectual foundations for higher study - but have they taken in the scale of change that we could face with the introduction of diplomas?

The 14-19 qualifications review correctly identified a gap in the provision between the traditional "academic" route of GCSE and A level and the occupational/apprenticeship route. Far too many young people were being forced to study inappropriate academic subjects and were not gaining GCSE grades that provided them with meaningful progression pathways. The Tomlinson report proposed a radical reshaping of the awards framework, but this was not universally welcomed.

However, it became apparent that the existing framework was not stimulating growth in age participation in higher education. Equally, it was not providing the skills for employment as identified by the Leitch review. The new sector skills councils allowed employment sectors to specify the learning and skills they required. The outcome was the announcement of 14 diploma areas to fill this perceived gap, the first wave of which would start to teach young people this September. This summer, many 13-year-olds will be making decisions about whether to study diplomas and, if so, which one. But who will advise them, and will they understand the long-term implications of that choice?

I support the need for 14-19 reform and to provide qualifications for the widest spectrum of ability and interest. But do diplomas open opportunities or narrow choice? Universities must be able to admit students who have followed a diploma route through Levels 1, 2 and 3 to achieve an award equivalent to a number of A levels. Here the recent announcement of "academic" diplomas in humanities, sciences and modern foreign languages starts to create uncertainty. If the previous diplomas were not vocational, why then have academic diplomas appeared? And if GCSE and A-level routes are to continue, why have "academic" diplomas been created?

In August 2005, we were assured that "A levels are here to stay". Recently, the existing system was described as "over-complex". The new Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval indicated that diplomas would duplicate the offer provided through applied A levels - which will cease to exist from 2013. And latterly Maggie Scott, the director of learning and quality at the Association of Colleges, said "we can see the point when A levels ... might be subsumed under the diploma umbrella". All very confusing, or do we start to see a move from the present three-pronged A levels, diplomas and apprenticeship scheme to an all-embracing umbrella?

The changes to the education system may be the most significant of our lifetime. But for universities there remain uncertainties. How many "diplomats" will there be in 2013, and which diplomas will secure progression into higher education? What will be the quality of the learning experience? The Teaching Development Agency has allocated modest training places to supply teachers with the skills required to teach the new qualifications. However, this could be too little if the growth in diplomas is as projected.

The diplomas must be seen as a big opportunity for further education. Colleges will deliver Level 3 diplomas, and many of the diploma areas will resonate with the staff expertise in FE. The encouragement to develop more foundation degrees to meet employment needs and awarding power to colleges creates an irresistible opportunity. Foundation degrees in ICT, health, engineering, creative and media studies and construction will be offered as a logical extension of diploma study in similar areas. In the short term, this will raise the performance measures of higher education; but it may represent a poor student experience without the enrichment associated with university learning.

Universities must embrace the new developments while protecting academic standards. We all need the 14-19 awards framework to be successful and meet the needs of employment and the needs of progression into university education - but we must, at all costs, avoid a Terminal 5 launch with dissatisfied customers and wrong destinations.

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