A future for exams in the free market

Each year, colleges spend about pound;300 million on exams administration and qualifications. But do they get value for money? What can the Association of Colleges do to encourage more competition and a demand-led market to drive down the spiralling costs?

We are in discussions with awarding bodies and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to understand the current position better. We acknowledge the fundamental importance of qualifications to individuals in demonstrating knowledge and ability. They are also an important proxy for government when measuring improvements in the capability of the UK labour market. Qualifications are here to stay. But are they too expensive?

Awarding bodies are trying to modernise. They are investing in new technology to improve reliability in marking and to offer more innovative assessment schemes for students. They are also looking to improve rigour while preserving standards. That is in everybody's interests.

We welcome the prospect of transformed and more innovative assessment. The question is whether the market can bear the extra costs. The 14-19 sector has more young people taking more qualifications every year. Last year, 783,878 A-level examinations alone were taken, and the Government predicts a 20 per cent increase in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds staying in education - from 1.25m this year to 1.5m in 2008.

Then there are the Government's aspirations for 750,000 adults to gain Skills for Life qualifications between 2004 and 2007, and funding level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications for those adults without them. The AoC wants to see value for money included within the modernisation plans.

Awarding bodies need to re-examine their price structures, compete more aggressively in terms of cost and make their products more attractive and relevant to the market.

Colleges simply cannot afford the exponential growth in the cost of examinations. Colleges so far have not flexed their potential buying muscle - a fact recognised in the Foster report, which urges them to get a better deal through procurement. However, colleges tend to leave it to heads of department to match their students to the most appropriate assessment specification. That is the upside - the benefit of choice - and why the AoC supports a free market rather than a single system.

The downside is that economies of scale can be lost. Consortia do exist.

Deals are struck to reduce costs. More colleges are beginning to bargain for prices to be reduced. But they are complex negotiations.

The introduction of the four-unit A-level may prompt a re-think of policy.

Finance directors may encourage an overall review of college buying patterns and have fresh talks with the unitary bodies. They may challenge the cost of late entries to the college, and improve the efficiency of internal systems.

Awarding bodies tell us that regulation adds to the cost of bringing a new qualification to the market. Our discussions with the QCA lead us to believe that it is taking significant steps to reduce bureaucracy through simplified and unified systems, including a single-centre approval system that is currently out to consultation.

We are encouraging and supporting work that will bring greater transparency to the system and make it easier for costs to be compared. Internationally, the UK qualifications system is held in high regard. The AoC is regularly called on to introduce the UK vocational system to high-level delegations from all over the world.

They like the concept of a framework, of progression from one level to the next and of a clear understanding of the competences needed to reach each level of attainment. They also like the way it all relates to jobs and to university-level study. But how is it all paid for?

There has to be effort on all sides to cut costs to the bone - otherwise there is a danger that other routes will emerge that bypass the carefully constructed framework with its nationally agreed standards and quality assurance.

While the QCA takes steps to streamline systems and simplify the qualifications structure, industry itself may be creating a parallel, sector-based system of qualifications outside the existing frameworks. That could lead to additional cost, more bureaucracy and a yet more complex system.

Maggie Scott is director of quality and learning at the Association of Colleges

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