Throughout October there has been a bitter row rumbling over national vocational qualifications. How many were taking them, how many achieved them, had they done more than displace existing qualifications, had they added to the sum of national training opportunities and success? The hard questions were raised by the report Rhetoric and Reality: Britain's new vocational qualifications.
The argument initially appeared to be between the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (optimistic) and the researchers (pessimistic). It then developed into an apparent disagreement between the NCVQ and the Department for Education and Employment whose figures were closer to the researchers' than the council's.
Last Thursday, however, the DFEE published what seemed to be the "clarification" the researchers had been demanding - except the small print showed that the figures they put out were supplied by the NCVQ.
All this would be laughable if the future of these qualifications was not so important. It matters relatively little how many have taken them so far. It matters a great deal that the country has a coherent and respected set of qualifications. As yet we have no such thing. Fundamental criticisms of national vocational qualifications have been made in a series of reports and studies, in particular by the Beaumont report published last January.
Beaumont described the qualifications as "complex and jargon-ridden" and said that new systems of funding, assessment and management were needed. In particular it was highly critical of the assessment arrangements both because they were under the discretion of the awarding bodies and because output-linked funding meant those in charge of assessment had a vested interest in passing as many people as possible in the minimum time.
This week, as we went to press, plans by the NCVQ to unveil proposals for a new assessment system for general national vocational qualifications appeared to have been delayed. It is to be hoped that this was nothing more than a prudent desire to avoid a clash with the Queen's speech and that when the council's proposals appear they will address the assessment defects in a radical way. However, the main defects are at least as great with NVQs as with GNVQs.
The Queen's speech itself highlighted the importance of getting these qualifications and the system for regulating them sorted quickly. The Education Bill, announced in the speech, will include clauses to implement Sir Ron Dearing's proposal in his 16-19 report to merge the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the NCVQ.
The resulting new agency will have a great deal of power. A briefing supplied this week says that its remit will cover "the qualifications available in schools, colleges and the workplace" and that the Secretary of State will be given extended power, on the advice of the new agency, "to approve the qualifications which can be offered by schools, colleges and other publicly funded training". The modifying phrase "excluding higher education" which was in the consultation document circulated last summer, has disappeared.
No doubt the universities, through the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, will scrutinise the Bill in detail when it is published and will try to get it modified during its passage if it does indeed contain such apparently sweeping powers for the agency and the minister.
They would, however, be wise, given the uncertainty surrounding amendments to legislation and the possible support of the Opposition for the Government's proposals in this respect, to do their utmost at the same time to see that the vocational qualifications side of the merger is sorted out satisfactorily.
It will not be easy. In grappling with vocational qualifications it will be impossible to avoid the issue of externally set standards. This is something universities have as yet hardly begun to address (page 1). It is an issue which appears to run counter to jealously guarded autonomy.
Yet, if universities are to be involved in professional training at the higher levels - and this week's news (page 48) of a consortium preparing to involve itself in awarding vocational qualifications makes it clear they will be - they will need to accept that standards will be set outside individual institutions.