The Value of Higher National Certificates

The Higher National Certificate (HNC) is an incredibly valuable award for people who are operating as technicians within industry. It was, and continues to be, an important award, particularly in the areas of science and science-related disciplines. It has always been very greatly valued by employers who have sponsored their employees to gain this qualification, possibly as an award in itself or in terms of progression on to a part-time degree orformembership of a professional body. However, over the past few years, colleges have witnessed dramatic declines in the enrolment of students on HNC awards, following the change of recruiting policies by employers who have preferred to take graduates straight into technician-type jobs. This has damaged a great deal of provision that colleges have played a valuable part. Although now many employers are realising that very often graduates are not the best people to bring into technician roles, even though they require very high levels of skill, understanding and knowledge. So there is evidence the pendulum is swinging back, where employers are again sponsoring their employees to attend college to obtain HNC awards. Very often companies’ human resource programmes would indicate that ‘growing their own timber’ produces a more loyal and competent individual within the workforce. It is important that colleges respond positively to this change of operation.

However, there are a number of worrying features following the publication of the Dearing Review into higher education, last summer. One area of concern is the very simplistic curriculum level framework articulated in the Review. It is based on an eight-level framework (HI to H8). This is shown in the diagram below.

KEY: Type of Programme

  • A = Accelerated route if correct number of specialist credit points are acquired
  • S = Single subject
  • C =Combined subject
  • B = Broad range of subjects
  • P = Subject leading to professional status
  • Conversion = Postgraduate Conversion course
Fig.01 –Proposed Curriculum Level Framework

Fig.01 –Proposed Curriculum Level Framework

HNCs are placed on the bottom rung and, as such, this can be very damaging to what is a very valuable and integral award in its own right. Any person who has taught HNC students realises that, in many cases, they are the most highly motivated and committed students who study in Further Education (FE) colleges. As I have said above, employers have sponsored these individuals and, therefore, they are gaining valuable experience in the workplace and have already a maturity and understanding of the work ethic, as well as knowing the culture of their particular company and associated processes. As well as these employer-sponsored HNC students, there is a trend for individuals to sponsor themselves. This trend has, in part, mitigated the decline of employer-sponsored students. These students are invariably mature and very highly motivated. On completion of their HNC, many of them are very capable of gaining access to honours degree programmes with one or two year’s exemption and, in some cases, have progressed directly into higher degree programmes of study. This is testimony to their commitment and ability. The very nature ofthese students challenges the simplistic Dearing eight-level framework, which provides no means to take account oftheir learning through employment. This simplistic model has been reinforced by the recent exercise undertaken by Edexcel, a key awarding body, in its review of higher awards-HNC occupy the lowest rung of their framework and its value is equated to half an Higher National Diploma (HND). If this model of award/curriculum equivalence is adopted, it could relegate and devalue the HNC award. The nature and value of the learner must be recognised and the value of the award not placed simplistically on alevel-rated framework Issues of progression and transition must be precisely articulated.

Colleges have a major part to play in the growth of sub-degree work that is advocated very strongly by the Dearing Review and it is important that colleges, who have a credible track record in offering Higher National Certificates, capitalise on this tradition and are ready to respond very positively with new programmes of study within the Higher National Certificate awards. The awarding bodies, particularly Edexcel, have a major part to play to make certain that the HNC qualifications are defined in a way that reflects not only the content of the awards, but also the nature of the students who will be pursuing them. This will ensure that issues of progression and transition are made easier and precisely defined to recognise this student population, as well as the value of the award. Very similar arguments relate also to the range of professional awards that many FE students, who are working in science and science-related subjects, pursue.

Let us not develop yet another simplistic and inflexible framework that deters students and restricts their opportunities to exit with an honourable award which is fully recognised, particularly by employers, as well as offering opportunities for smooth transition and progression on to higher levels. Student bodies of the future will increasingly be mature individuals, who wish to study part-time or through other modes of study and attendance.

Dick Evans is chair of the Post 16 Science ASE Committee.

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