Connecting with The World of Work

Fusing Workforce Development with Further and Higher Education.

Dr Dick Evans reports on the annual UVAC conference which took place at the end of last year.

Over 170 delegates in York for the 2004 annual conference of the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC). As the title suggests the central theme for the event was the crucial issue of linking the worlds of education and work.

Currently this topic is high profile as a result of a number of developments including the creation of Foundation Degrees (FDs), the publication of the Tomlinson Report, the new QCA framework, the government’s skills strategy and the need to clarify the role of FE and its relationship with HE. In addition the introduction of variable fees for undergraduates will require universities in particular to rethink their purpose and location within the higher education landscape. One consequence of these changes could be fewer universities but with a number becoming specialist institutions. One current weakness and limitation of the HE system is that work based learning too often reflects the strengths in research of the institutions. A number of speakers predicted that research could increasingly move into the commerce and business sectors. Speakers throughout the conference highlighted that these new agendas/initiatives will present challenges to all the educational and training sectors and require a number of radical solutions to some long standing problems. One of the top priorities was the urgent need to further strengthen partnerships between all the players particularly with the employers. The success of many of these government initiatives depends crucially on the need to establish more effective partnerships, which are based on stable and equitable relationships.

The conference was opened with a question and answer session with Mike Tomlinson on the recent 14 to 19 report. Even accepting the focus on 14 to 19 the report would have major implications for HE. It was essential, Tomlinson said, that progression opportunities existed for learners pursuing the vocational route as the present arrangements favour academic qualifications. The report was not only about reforms to the curriculum but also the qualifications system with some strong recommendations about assessment regimes. The expressions of assessment had diversified historically developing different grading statements for different examinations, which causes confusion amongst end-users. The recommendations call for a clearer and simpler system but a key question remaining is whether it should be a one size fit or a more diverse system? The ultimate fate and success of the proposals, if agreed by the government, lies in the hands of the providers and their partners. Mike stressed that many barriers existed that needed to be removed across all the education sectors. FE had a pivotal role to play, as did employers in developments such as foundation degrees.

I will focus on a few of the sessions, (a more complete record can be obtained from the UVAC website).

The rest of the conference comprised panel sessions and discussion groups addressing issues associated with how higher education can be connected more effectively with workforce development. Topics considered included: a more responsive and flexible qualifications system; the role of SSCs; the role of RDAs and the potential of APEL/credit transfer, and the use of individual learning contracts. A wide range of inputs identified a number of factors that required urgent attention including the removal of many of the barriers between the education sectors.

The input from a representative from Scotland identified some interesting facts about the state of HE for example that the HE participation level is already over 50% in Scotland and Foundation Degrees were not seen as a priority.

Scotland has a strong commitment to the widening participation agenda including ways of recruiting students into HE who do not possess the conventional entry qualifications. In addition Scotland has introduced a clear policy on managing immigration particularly for people who can enter areas of employment where skills shortages exist and in this context the speaker emphasised that the Scottish born population is declining. Research had shown that workers liked gaining qualification and as a result Scotland is committed to:

  • Celebrating achievement.
  • Professionalising occupations.
  • Encouraging mobility of labour.
  • Recognising learners’ aspirations.

Overall the impression gained was that Scotland was introducing programmes that were addressing some of the key issues associated with work-based education and training.

One input highlighted what impediments were in play when attempting to connect with people in the workforce. Research shows, not unsurprisingly, that employers want wider skills – their main concern is about employability. (How many times have we heard this?). On the other side of the equation employees want employers to support and help them grow. Employers still find it difficult to understand the education system and are calling for a simplified and common language. Again it was emphasised that employers are not fully involved with the development of Foundation Degrees.

An interesting input from a chemistry recruitment manager from GlaxoSmithKline described a long-standing and successful undergraduate work placement programme. The company worked closely with a number of universities and offered real work experience. The programme raised the profile of the subject and added value to the degrees being pursued by the students.

A speaker from the QCA outlined the consultation document issued at the end of November 2004. It is attempting to introduce an integrated qualifications framework with eight levels ranging from entry to doctorate level. Currently the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) comprises:

  • 4000  qualifications.
  • 115 approved awarding bodies.
  • Series of mini-frameworks.
  • Series of dead ends (progression barriers).

One serious fault with the current qualifications system is that it fails to satisfy employer needs. A surprising fact is that only around 10% of the NQF embraces and recognises all training being currently undertaken. The present system has grown in an ad hoc manner comprising accredited, non-accredited and training that does not lead directly to qualifications – hence the low percentage. The characteristics that will inform the new NQF include:

  • Flexibility and embracing 14-19,HE, Adult and UK-wide.
  • Qualifications which signify competence.
  • A common language.
  • Quality assured.
  • Fit for purpose assessment.

The statement about including the UK came as a distinct surprise to the delegates from Wales and Scotland!

Foundation Degrees (FDs) figured significantly during the conference and one session provided feedback from employers. In general employers recognised the need to up-skill the workforce and to recruit people with the right mix of knowledge, understanding and skills. Employers are still disappointed with the output from the traditional academic process and not satisfied with the vocational programmes in HE. Also they were cautious of government and providers’ initiatives and wanted to be involved in setting the agenda for vocational programmes especially with the providers. Research has shown that providers do not possess the specialist up-to-date knowledge in many areas of study.

Views from providers included concerns about resources, limited expertise and knowledge base to meet employer requirements and concerns around work planning to meet flexible delivery expected by employers.

The present system, still too focused on full time students when actually the programmes are increasingly attracting part-time students. Planning in HE is limited at present because of this preoccupation with full time students, (40% of learners at this level are part time). It is essential that more appropriate systems of support and recognition be introduced to attend to the needs of part-time students.

In summary the challenges presented by the development of FDs are the need to:

  • Encourage employers to drive the agenda at a detailed level.
  • Stop the debates about academic and vocational learning.
  • Support academic staff to take a managed risk with teaching, learning and assessment strategy.
  • Focus energy to deliver high quality fit for purpose HE.
  • Develop competent and creative FD graduates.

A speaker from an awarding body admitted that part of the problem was caused by the awarding bodies themselves and resulted from the preoccupation with the supply side of the examination industry.

Another session revisited the importance of APL/APEL and presented the findings of a recent UVAC publication *. Reference was made to the excellent progress being made in other countries particularly France. The resulting discussion highlighted yet again a wide range of views in regard to operating APL/APEL systems with no real consensus. A great deal of research has been carried out and there are a number of examples of good practice within certain institutions but overall the picture is patchy and lacks the critical mass that is required.

One fascinating aspect of the conference was the presence of a contingent of guests from Turkey lead by Salih Celic (Deputy Under Secretary for Education). Turkey is in the midst of a major set of reforms spanning all aspects of the education and training system. Primary targets include establishing vocational standards required by the market, developing effective guidance and counselling systems and creating the infrastructures necessary for life-long learning. A major project focusing on the modernisation of vocational education and training (MVET) has as its goal “to further modernise and adapt the vocational education and training system to make vocational education more responsive to the socio-economic needs of the country and to the principles of life-long learning”. At the centre of these reforms is teacher training (TT) both at pre- and in-service stages with new standards and curriculum for VET TT. In addition a high investment is occurring in IT, physical resources linked with the creation of a support infrastructure across all the education sectors. A number of priority areas have been identified including computing, electrics/electronics, automotive engineering, clothing and hospitality. Talking with Salih and his colleagues it was interesting to note that Turkey does not experience difficulties with recruiting teachers and students to science, mathematics or engineering This was in stark contrast to the views expressed by many delegates about these subjects in this country. Interesting to note how the Turkish reforms resonate with many of the current discussions in this country although we have been talking about many of these for much longer!

(I subsequently listened to a radio programme, which endorsed the commitments to knowledge-based technologies and education reforms that are being undertaken by Turkey).

In conclusion David Melville (Chair of UVAC) provided a summary of the conference and articulated the way forward for UVAC as a sector lead body progressing the issues and agendas on:

  • Building on Tomlinson
  • UVAC Tomlinson progress group.
  • FE/HE
  • Greater cohesion
  • Common language
  • Dealing with the interfaces e.g. FE/HE.
  • Working with employers
  • Credit work based training
  • Networks
  • SSCs.
  • UVAC National Validation Consortium

Overall a valuable and informative conference but as many of the delegates commented many of the issues have be rehearsed and discussed over a number of years with no real evidence of action. Perhaps UVAC can act as a focus and catalyst in bringing about a consensus across the various players especially FE/HE and employers to raise the profile of vocational education and training.

Background to UVAC

The University Vocational Awards Council was established in 1999 as an independent voice for HE and FE on higher vocational learning. UVAC’s membership stands at approximately 100 and comprises in addition to universities and colleges a number of key organisations including Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Learning and Skills Council, University and Colleges Admissions Service, Glaxo Smith Kline, CITB and SEMTA.

UVAC provides a series of services and products to its members including publications, accreditation services, research and an advocacy service for vocational learning in order to influence the debate and subsequently raise the profile of work-based learning. UVAC have published a number of excellent reports on such important topics as: > Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning; Graduate Apprenticeships and National Occupational Standards.

The organisation is based at the Bolton Institute of Higher Education. The Chief Executive is Professor Simon Roodhouse and the Chair is Professor David Melville.

Further information about UVAC including a full transcript of proceedings from the annual conference can be accessed from their website uvac.ac.uk.

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