How many of the problems currently being experienced in British education should be blamed on the institutions within the higher education sector? They, after all, exercise a major influence on setting the agenda for the various examining bodies. Does this top-down approach cause the great loss of potential students? Even as the implications of the demographic decline materialise many institutions admissions tutors still worship at the GCE A level altar, only accepting novitiates who have pursued a content-led course. A number of institutions still view non-standard entry gates with suspicion, especially prospective students with vocational qualifications, such as National Awards of the Business Technician Education Council (BTEC). It is now widely accepted that A levels create a bottleneck in the system and must be reformed. Research has shown that there is little correlation between A level results and the class of degree awarded. Why, then, this obsession with A levels?
Sadly some higher education institutions (HEIs) set additional hurdles for entry to students possessing vocational awards. A common view is that certain subjects are not pursued in sufficient depth. This usually means mathematics and even though BTEC has recently introduced an Enhanced mathematics course to correct this, admissions tutors still voice concern. Indeed, a number of universities are now advocating introducing a four-year degree course for students with non-standard qualifications.
This approach poses fundamental questions. The universities presumably are totally convinced of the immutability of their degrees — no need to review or reform content even in the light of new changing client groups and more enlightened curricula approaches in schools and colleges. But in tune with the requirements of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) and the Technical and Vocational Education Extension (TVEE), schools and colleges are introducing more breadth in curricula frameworks with a move away from early specialisation and the obsession with depth. Surely HEIs now need to introduce an integrated provision for all students without relying on a variety of special arrangements. And in any case, would such an extension to the standard three-vear degree course be possible within the new financial allocation models being introduced by the Universities Funding Council and the Polytechnic and Colleges Funding Council?
The historical top-down approach has in the past produced more Nobel prize winners per hectare than in any other country, but will it continue to do so in the 1990s? It seems as if the major aim of higher education (HE) is to push the few very bright individuals to the sharp cutting edge of research in the shortest possible time (often called the PhD syndrome). The cost of this approach in loss of potential students is considerable. The cur j rent examination system could be summarised as perpetuating a catalogue of accumulative failure. Even after selection, 40% fail GCE O levels, over 30% fail A levels and there are often large percentage losses at first degree and higher degree levels. And this country’s international track record —brain drains, lost opportunities in technological exploration and innovation — speaks volumes about the so-called efficiency and effectiveness of our educational system.
Closer co-operation between HE and further education (FE) sectors is essential. If many courses in HE are about producing , graduate scientists/engineers then FE is mainly about producing technicians. The technician occupies a very important position in industry, research and development. The support of four or more technicians is required for every scientist and engineer employed. A positive approach must be taken for their education/training, career structure and the recognition of their status.
The introduction of GCSE for the 16 age group has been generally welcomed for its enlightened methods of teaching and learning, with its predominantly process-led approach. The contrast with the traditional (out of date?) approach of A levels is causing frustration for students who now need to adapt to formal teaching and learning methods. This also causes difficulties for teachers and lecturers who must attempt to ; match the two widely differing approaches, It is essential that pre-16 education matches post-16 provision, whether particular courses lie within the general/academic (GCSE, AS, A levels) or vocational (BTEC, CGLI, RSA, etc) pathways. The councils that are responsible for these, namely the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council (general/academic) and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (vocational), must work more closely together to produce coherent curricula frameworks to give the opportunity for smooth progression for all students.
The rejection by the government of crucial aspects of last year’s Higginson Report (‘Advancing A levels’) has caused concern to many in education who are attempting to introduce greater relevance and breadth to the post-16 curriculum for those students on the general/academic course pathway. That report made very positive recommendations on reforming A levels, the main one being the introduction of five leaner and fitter awards. Following the rejection or shelving of the Report, the only real alternative is to develop Advanced Supplementary (AS) awards. The AS syllabuses are currently too content-led, mainly offering complementary provision. They should be reformed to match GCSE by being more process-led and offer the student contrasting provision too. Meanwhile it is imperative that HE institutions support and recognise AS levels and, dare I say it, discriminate in favour of students holding such awards. A number of institutions are now prepared to accept certain combinations of A and AS levels, but there is a long way to go.
It is now up to HEIs, supported by influential bodies such as the Committees of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and by Polytechnic Directors, to accept the benefits of balance and breadth and to provide prospective students with a clear and unequivocal message to that effect.