Time the cavalry rode to the rescue

February 24, 1995

Higher education should take the new Department for Employment consultative paper, A Vision for Higher Level Vocational Qualifications seriously. This will not be easy. The much-postponed publication has been dignified with the title "a vision" but the vision is neither clear nor inspiring and there are a large number of hostages to fortune in the form of vague, even vacuous, phrases wrapped around difficult and contentious ideas about morals and competence.

The paper contains nothing concrete that has not already appeared in the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' Strategy Paper on Vocational Higher Education and the recently published Higher Education Quality Council document Vocational Qualifications and Standards in Focus.

That, however, is in itself important. The paper might, had the hawkish elements of the DE been wholly in control, have been quite different: prescriptive, threatening, seeking to impose a structure independently of the universities and the professional bodies. Thanks perhaps to sounder counsel at late stages of the drafting, it is now tentative in tone and consultative in status and provides a wide open invitation for higher education to get in there and sort it.

It is a pity that the Government has felt it necessary to press on with their plans for a complete structure of vocational qualifications up to advanced professional levels above post-graduate qualifications. It would have been better to concentrate on getting National Vocational Qualifications sorted out at technician level - levels 1 through 3.

This, not advanced professional formation, is where this country has such a marked deficit. Establishing those qualifications as valued and respected runs against long established academic snobberies and hierarchies, and was always bound to be difficult.It could have done with the undivided attention of all concerned. Furthermore, if it could be done successfully, a sound platform would be in place for the next phase of expansion in higher education. Alas, however, perhaps for electoral reasons, the decision was taken to carry on trying to get levels 4 and 5 established. Hence the "vision".

The "vision" is of a consensus on qualifications appropriate for different sectors, achieved "through the full collaboration of all those with responsibility for the development and delivery of those qualifications". It calls for assessment methods "which are sufficiently robust, demanding and cost-effective to earn public confidence". It calls for quality assurance which would "require the creation of new partnerships". It skates over dangerous and difficult issues like assessment. This is polished off in a paragraph, with little appreciation of how difficult it will be to find common ground between, as the HEQC put it, "criterion-referenced" vocational assessment and "norm-referenced" academic assessment.

Perhaps the hope is that such difficulties, if ignored, will somehow vanish: the very mistake which has caused so much trouble with the lower-level qualifications.

Given its shortcomings, it is hard to credit that this document is the product of several brainstorming sessions involving the DFE, Education Department, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, and the parallel Scottish bodies. But perhaps their energies have gone into ensuring that the document was less offensive to universities and professional associations than it might otherwise have been. If so, that is to the good. The Government faced a real risk of all-out defiance. Peter Smith, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (page 12), articulates the profession's concern expressing outrage that the age-old category "architect" has not been given its own NVQ subject, and raising serious questions about the role of chartered professional associations in the new world order of NVQs.

The chartered professions are an interesting feature of our society. It was they who benefited from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, entrenching their independence in newly restored Royal Charters and setting a model for self-regulation in professions. These are Burke's "little platoons", important bastions of diversity and independence, and do not fit easily with increasing centralisation of power in Whitehall and they have felt under attack ever since Margaret Thatcher's election. In part they have themselves to blame. They have resisted change beyond reason. They were perceived to have become more self-serving than public-serving. They lost support in universities by their reluctance to accept curriculum change.

Nonetheless they remain the best basis on which to build professional practice. The Engineering Council has, for example, demonstrated with recently published proposals for the reform of engineering formation, Competence and Commitment, how genuinely robust, high-quality professional qualifications may be established and monitored.

The universities too are "little platoons" - far more autonomous than those elsewhere in Europe. They too will bridle at anything like a renewed Government attempt to usurp their rights to determine their own curriculum and assessments and take responsibility for the qualifications they award.

So where does that leave this week's "vision"? It is probably sufficiently vague and emollient not to raise too many hackles. So should it just be let pass? Tempting as this may be it would, as the CVCP's much superior document concluded, be a mistake.

Universities would be unwise to believe that higher-level NVQs can safely be ignored. An incoming Labour government, for example, could be expected to be far more prescriptive and determined. Universities should see this document as a sign that the whole vocational system needs them like Custer needed the Seventh Cavalry, and ride in.

The universities have long experience in vocational training, however "ivory tower" their image may sometimes have seemed. Nor are they novices on the NVQ scene - a fact which is overlooked in this document. Fifty or so universities have already been approved as centres offering NVQs, a Management Verification Consortium of 35 colleges and universities has been accredited as an awarding body for the Management NVQ level 5, and over a quarter of universities use NVQs in their own staff training.

There would be considerable benefits in universities extending this involvement. The "vision" document mentions some, like strengthened links between academia and employment. Others include the financial benefit for both higher and further education from employers paying for training; and the benefit to the country if its universities become more involved in higher-level updating and retraining. Companies by and large cannot and do not provide this for themselves.

Indeed the best hope for cracking this country's egregious training record is for its universities to engage in developing the qualifications. The best that can be said for this document is that it reveals how seriously impoverished the vocational qualifications scene will be without them and cranks open the door for their involvement.

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