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No future in playing name games

Re-branding qualifications avoids focusing on the real skill shortages, argues Peter Robinson

If changing the names of qualifications could solve the problems of post-16 learning, they would have been solved long ago. There have been numerous titles for the programmes offered to young people in work-based training. National Traineeships arrived in 1997, but are to become Foundation Modern Apprenticeships. In the mid-Nineties, they tried to supplant the BTEC National with the Advanced GNVQ, now to be re-named vocational A-levels. And there will be an attempt to supplant the HNDHNC with the new foundation degree.

Why does the Government feel that re-branding is necessary? When the names of established products are changed (for example, Marathon to Snickers), the only certain result is customer annoyance.

The Government is chasing the mythical beast of "parity of esteem" between the vocational and the academic. The mantra is repeated: what the economy lacks is enough workers with craft and technician qualifications. Look at countries such as Germany. Look at the productivity gap that is said to separate Britain from Germany.

There is a simple flaw with this proposition. Switzerland, Austria and Denmark share with Germany an apprenticeship-based system and relatively high numbers with vocational qualifications. However, the first three countries have levels of productivity no higher than ours.

The market demands more workers with general rather than vocational qualifications. The growth in managerial, professional and technical occupations has brouht greater demand for people with higher (degree-level) qualifications. There has been no increase in demand for the likes of the new associate degree.

Demand for those with A-levels or equivalent has fallen, primarily reflecting the declining numbers in intermediate craft or skilled manual occupations. The main virtue of getting such level 3 qualifications is the chance they offer to progress into higher education, which is why so many of those who pass Advanced GNVQs apply to university. There has been an increase in demand for lower qualifications at around level 2 (GCSE equivalent), in part reflecting the growth in the personal service occupations and the penetration of vocational qualifications within those occupations. Clearly, we do need a work-based training route and we do need a variety of vocational options in full-time FE. The Government thinks it can get young people to pick the vocational route by changing the product names. They are not so easily persuaded.

The new titles will likely confuse and irritate employers, who have got used to qualifications like the HND. Although the BTEC National was supposed to have been killed off by the Advanced GNVQ, it hangs in there in industries such as engineering because employers want it that way. Likewise the HND. All the Government will have succeeded in doing is multiplying the number of qualifications. And all because of a mistaken economic analysis that grips the Department for Education and Employment.

Peter Robinson is a senior economist with the Institute of PublicPolicy and Research

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