The Importance of an HE Framework.

The Tomlinson review could provide a turning point towards improving the UK’s global competitive capability. But delay will prove disastrous. Here Dick Evans provides some constructive suggestions to move matters forward.

As a result of the Tomlinson review a great deal of attention and discussion is now focussing on the possible future shape and nature of the National Qualification Framework (NQF). The review was triggered by the fiasco caused by C2k and this has in turn created a number of other important inquiries and reviews including those looking at vocational qualifications and post-14 mathematics.

The vocational qualifications review is being undertaken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA). Also recently a number of articles (1) have raised the issue of how the NQF should be configured particularly at the Higher Education level. These interesting articles have highlighted the need to create a streamlined and fully integrated NQF which would improve progression between the levels e.g. FE to HE and reduce the divisions between academic, vocationally related and occupationally specific qualifications pathways. Clearly the challenges presented in developing a streamlined and integrated framework are both many and complex and need to be managed in a careful and systematic manner. Any rationalisation, (reduction?), of the awards and qualifications system must not be driven by the Treasury, which will see this exercise as an opportunity for saving money. In the past when qualifications reform occurred rationalisation meant cutting courses and programmes without a long-term view of the consequences. Every one agrees that there are too many qualifications and awards, (often referred to as the qualifications jungle), which does cause confusion in the minds of the end user but any reform must be based on sound educational grounds and related to the economy and not on the altar of financial convenience. The most important aspect is to create a qualifications system that offers value for money and matches the needs of the end user i.e. employers, universities and is clearly understood by the learners.

UNCERTAIN PURPOSE AND SCOPE OF HE.

At present the precise nature, purpose and scope of higher education particularly the vocationally related and occupationally specific within the NQF is uncertain. The reasons for this imprecision are rooted in the way the qualification frameworks have evolved having been created all to often in a random and ad hoc way with varying degrees of political interference and dogma. The accreditation and the subsequent funding of some higher-level awards have often been ambiguous and uncertain and this has lead to a variety of possible funding sources e.g. HEFC(E), FEFC and now the LSCs. At present there is still confusion associated with the funding of a number of important qualifications, which were in the FEFC times referred to as non-schedule 2 provision. Innumerable previous qualification reviews have envariably failed to carry out a root and branch reform that was so critically required. Sadly earlier reviews have only brought about incremental changes to the qualification system all to often referenced to and influenced by the supposed gold standard of ‘A’ levels (the general pathway). This is yet another classic example of tinkering for which this country is world class. Because of the lack of political will and subsequent ignorance about vocational qualifications this route has grown like Topsy which has created many of the problems we can identify today. Research into technical education reinforces the fact that there has been little true understanding or recognition of the importance of work based qualifications and their relationship to the skill base of the country.

ACADEMIC/VOCATIONAL DIVIDE

The successive reviews have always generated a great deal of empty rhetoric on the academic/vocational divide but coupled with an almost complete absence of any significant analysis of the needs of the employers and the workplace. This neglect has most certainly contributed to the current skills shortages and the continuing skills mismatch associated with the work place. So this current review is welcome but long overdue. The neglect of vocationally related and occupationally specific qualifications has been a national scandal. The involvement of employers is essential in order to define the occupational standards now needed in the work place. If many of the problems associated with occupationally specific and vocationally related qualifications are to be resolved employer involvement is critical. Unfortunately in the past their involvement has been tokenistic and the view often expressed was employers do not know what they want and after all the academics know best. A similar situation exists for training providers who are often treated as second class institutions when compared with college providers which is very unfair as they are much closer to the work place and are the major players in work based provision including Modern Apprenticeships (MAs). Their significant contribution must be recognised and the existing funding inequalities resolved and the false perceptions about them quickly dispelled.

As mentioned above much of the attention in previous reviews has been focussed on the general pathway i.e. GCSEs and GCE A’ levels the latter being the so called gold standard beloved by so many. ‘A’ levels have distorted the qualification system for many decades and have directly and indirectly marginalised vocational qualifications. As always these previous reforms have generated their own unique language with statements, often never properly defined, such as that the curriculum framework should:

  • “create parity of esteem” between the academic and vocational routes.
  • possess breadth, balance and depth.
  • be learner centred
  • offer opportunities for smooth progression and transition.

One of the possible developments being proposed by the Tomlinson group is the creation of a baccalaureate type examination that could replace ‘A’ levels. However already there has been a chorus of protests from the usual suspects about getting rid of the A’ levels namely the public schools, universities and somewhat surprising a major employer organisation and key individuals in some of the educational quangos. Attempts to create parity of esteem between awards have largely failed because of the overwhelming support that ‘A’ levels have from the majority of the universities, schools, parents etc. You only need to look at the relatively short but chequered history of the GNVQs to see how difficult it was to establish a viable alternative to ‘A’ levels.

LONG LEAD-IN TIME

The Tomlinson committee has already indicated a long lead-time for any reforms to be introduced namely 2010 but already the battle lines are being drawn. This country does not have the luxury of such an elephantine gestation period of the reform of vocationally related and occupationally specific qualifications. Our competitors are already moving ahead of us in practically all aspects of educational and skill attainment. Just witness our continual decline in performance on the various international league tables. Also look at the rapid rise in the Chinese and Indian sub-continent economies and other emerging countries, which are not just threatening our lower skills base in products and services. One consequence of skills shortages is the ever-accelerating rate of off-shoring of service and manufacturing industries across all skill levels as UK-based companies seek more qualified and competent workforces abroad. In addition many countries that have inwardly invested in this country are beginning to be concerned about the quality of graduates being recruited into such areas as pharmaceuticals. Modern industries require ever increasing numbers of highly qualified technicians and this is why vocationally related and occupationally specific higher education awards are so important. The NQF must quickly provide a smooth progression pathway from the Modern Apprenticeships (MAs) programmes to the higher-level qualifications, which include Foundation Degrees, CGLI Higher Level Qualifications, HND/Cs and Graduate Apprenticeships. In addition to qualification review and reform the equally important issues associated with accreditation, recognition and funding must be clarified and simplified.

HIGH QUALITY GUIDANCE SERVICES.

One major challenge in creating a truly integrated qualification framework is the essential and critical requirement for high quality guidance services that must underpin support to the learners at all stages of their studies. Careers guidance and support become even more important when the qualifications system is more integrated and streamlined.

At present these services are struggling with significantly reduced support to the learners where too often the service is only available to targeted groups i.e. there is no longer a universal right for careers guidance and advice. Interesting to note how invisible the Connexions service has become. It was launched with such great expectations and aspirations but now receives little attention. Perhaps some politicians and their special advisers think a rationalised and simplified qualification system will not require an expensive careers service!?

Having been critical of the past revisions the current debates and reviews are welcome but must bring about a set of root and branch reforms to the whole of the national qualifications. A National Qualifications Framework (NQF) must be established quickly, which is seamless in terms of progression and transition and removes the traditional divisions and artificial distinctions between the academic, vocational related and occupationally specific qualifications. However the reviews must consider wider issues that undermine the qualification system and its delivery and the following important aspects need to urgently addressed:

  • Establish systems to bring about better understanding and awareness of the curriculum and qualifications systems across the educational and training sectors e.g. schools, colleges, training providers, employers and universities.
  • Involve employers and training providers in more open, equal and effective partnerships with educational institutions but recognise the constraints that they are under and manage these partnerships accordingly to value their contributions.
  • Urgent review and reform of the guidance and advice systems especially careers at all stages of learning – review purpose of Connexions.
  • Develop effective programmes in schools of work based leaming/work related learning experiences/pre-vocational training/employability skills/job sampling, and the creation of realistic working environments in post-16 institutions and real work experience work including more thick and thin sandwich placements for HE learners.
  • Devise long term strategies to deal with the critical shortage of teachers in key vocational areas such as engineering, construction, applied sciences and strategic servicing disciplines e.g. mathematics, IT.
  • Develop a coherent single system to financially support all learners e.g. full and part-time.
  • Introduce clear, consistent and coherent funding methodology for all qualifications especially for vocationally related and occupationally specific awards at the higher levels.
  • Clarify as a matter of urgency how the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) will relate to the plethora of other organisations involved in identifying skill requirements (e.g.RDAs) education and training providers, awarding bodies, regulatory/inspection bodies (ALI, QAA, QCA), government departments DTI, DfES).

This list is by no means complete -clearly this last bullet point might need a separate analysis in another article. With so many disparate bodies how can a coherent and consistent approach be quickly established with so much historical baggage and associated vested interest?

References:

(1) David Melville. Guardian.
Simon Roodhouse. t magazine. 02/2004.

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