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What value vocational qualifications?


The ongoing issue of the respectability of vocational qualifications is again under the spotlight, following the recent A Level results and the rush to fill places on both vocationally-relevant and traditionally academic degree courses.

In the light of the recent A level results, the CIPD has questioned the relevance of the qualifications for working life, saying that HR managers already have reservations about the qualification. It also questions the significance of Advanced GNVQs, intended as the new vocational A Level, which have seen a reduction in the number of students, saying that they are only relevant in relation to their acceptability for university entrance. Says Roy Harrison, CIPD adviser on training; "The UK continues to suffer, in comparison with other countries, from having examinations for 18 year olds too narrowly focused on a small number of primarily academic subjects.....prepares them insufficiently for the world of work".

The CIPD is pushing for a broader-based set of qualifications at A Level standard along the lines of the French Baccalaureate, but having criticised the lack of vocational content in the current curriculum there seems to be some confusion over just how vocational A level style qualifications should be.

Meanwhile, more information is gradually forthcoming on the government's latest plan for Foundation Degrees. Here too though, the proposed qualification, due to be offered for the first time next year, are also causing concern. It has been confirmed that Foundation Degrees will be vocationally based, offered by further education colleges, validated by universities and designed in partnership with industry, being run as full-time two year courses or longer if taken part-time.

Vocational qualifications already exist at this level in the form of HNDs, but the Government says that these are in decline, enrolments having dropped by one quarter in the last five years due to the fact that they are are full-time programmes. The concept behind Foundation Degrees is that they will be more flexible, enabling individuals to ‘earn and learn’.

All well, and good, but what is still unclear is how the Foundation Degrees will fit into an already crowded market of vocational qualifications on offer. Speaking to the Guardian, Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, which is are bidding to run the new qualifications said that "the relationship between Foundation Degrees and HNCs/HNDs is not at all clear", adding that in time, he expected HNCs and HNDs to "wither away".

Another danger is that the new qualifications will be pushed as a panacea for addressing skills shortages and meeting the needs of anyone who has, for whatever reason, been unable or indeed unwilling to access Higher Education. Says the DfEE's consultation document: "(they will) provide specialist technical knowledge in leading edge sectors of the economy, and give the employability skills that employers are crying out for." The DfEE says that the qualifications will be aimed at addressing skills shortages by canvassing National Training Organisations, professional bodies, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to establish the main areas of importance.

Another obvious question has to be why Foundation Degrees should succeed while student and employer interest in HNDs and vocational GNVQS seems to be lacking. NIACE, the National Organisation for Adult Learning says that "the demand from employers for the Foundation Degree qualification appears hard to gauge."

NIACE have also expressed concern over the way that the qualification is being put forward. In their response to the Government's consultation document, NIACE say that "It is important to move away from describing HE programmes solely in terms of the full-time model, i.e. ‘two-year programme’. For part-time undergraduate students, a key target group, this reinforces their marginal status in higher education. A more useful alternative would be to describe the qualification in credit terms.."

It is also unclear, say NIACE, exactly how the broad group of proposed students will be attracted to sign up for the new qualifications (as yet, it is unclear what entrance requirements will be needed). "On the one hand, the proposal aims to address the needs of working adults seeking a theoretical and academic underpinning to back up and assist the development of their technical skills. On the other hand, it seeks to meet the needs of young people who have explicitly chosen to not to follow an academic route and are therefore seeking a focus on work-related rather than theoretical dimensions of study." In addition, the qualification is also aimed at "people whom the education system has failed in the past but who are seeking a second opportunity." NIACE say that these three groups have very different sets of aspirations and it will be a challenge to manage to meet all of them.

Unsuprisingly, a more positive response has come from the Higher Education Funding Council for England(HEFCE), who are responsible for inviting partnerships of higher education institutions, employers and further education colleges to bid to the new qualifications. HEFCE Chief Executive Brian Fender commented: "This initiative is good news for higher education. This initiative will be ....putting special emphasis on identifying and promoting the skills, competences and knowledge which graduates need to contribute most effectively throughout their careers. Foundation Degrees offer an important way for us to improve progression opportunities in higher education."

Key issue will remain whether the perceived respectability of vocational qualifications as opposed to academic ones in many areas. Again Michael Austin raises the point: "who's going to believe them? It's up to is up to us to overcome centuries of prejudice that a vocational is the poor relation of an academic education." And thereby lies the crux of the matter, regardless of any number of new qualifications being introduced.

Perhaps the key to this issue is for the government to take some lessons from providers of professional qualifications such as ACCA or CIPFA, the Law Society, CIM and the CIPD. These institutions preside over highly respected vocationally-based qualifications in their own fields, and seem to have no problems attracting potential students.


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