Vocation found

June 30, 1995

The not-so-new vocational qualifications are here to stay. That is the message of The THES survey on perceptions of NVQs and GNVQs in further and higher education institutions. FE colleges are resolutely behind the qualifications, with well over half viewing them favourably. Offering a service which in places overlaps the service provided by schools and universities, colleges are still searching for a distinctive post-16 niche. NVQs and GNVQs could be the answer. FE colleges can expect to become the principal deliverers of vocational qualifications.

The response from universities, which currently view the new courses primarily as admissions qualifications, is encouraging. Most admissions tutors have little experience of GNVQ students. The first GNVQ entrants will not graduate until 1997. Yet numbers of tutors are clearly ready to accept GNVQ students alongside traditionally qualified A-level students. They are making encouraging noises in their mission statements and some are even designing degree courses specifically for GNVQ-qualified students. This is perhaps just as well given the tenfold increase in the number of GNVQ applicants this year.

It is good news. The number of places is greater than the number of successful A-level achievers so some such alternative route was badly needed.

But there are some disturbing trends. In the national survey, very few old universities responded, while almost half of new universities did so. This suggests that an unofficial binary line could be restored if GNVQs permit entry only - or primarily - to new universities. Another problem is that, despite the "national" in its name, the GNVQ is becoming a local qualification, with universities taking students from local institutions that have a good record of achievement with which they are familiar. Increasingly, a merit at GNVQ - usually the minimum requirement at university - is not enough. It has to be a merit from an institution that the university knows well. This local orientation reduces their appeal to old universities which have national and international ambitions.

The antipathy of old universities might disappear when higher level GNVQs are introduced, when universities not only admit people with GNVQs but actually offer GNVQ courses at degree and postgraduate level. But again this might become predominantly the province of newer universities, further deepening the divide.

What is clear is that it would be folly to scrap the qualifications after a decade of hard work just because old universities have not welcomed GNVQ students with open arms. After all, several education and training authorities abroad - notably in the Middle East and Latin America - aim to establish frameworks based on the UK system. Old universities, so keen to attract overseas students, may yet find GNVQ students arriving by an unexpected route.

There is a message here for the Government, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats - all currently in the process of reviewing post-school qualifications. Tony Blair has signalled his Party's willingness to introduce significant changes into the qualifications structure, moving towards a system where academic and vocational study is combined. Don Foster proposes a more radical restructuring which would phase in a new credit-based system. Meanwhile Sir Ron Dearing may be influenced by similar ideas as he works on his review for the Department for Education. All should note a common plea from survey respondents for a period of consolidation - a chance to let the benefits of NVQs and GNVQs take root and for the problems to be properly addressed. A unified system is long overdue, but those who plan to introduce it need to be careful not to sweep away experience so painfully won. We cannot afford the time to start all over again.

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