A brief history of our mission in under 10 minutes

7th March 1997 at 00:00
It was clear that he was pretty impressed by the student he'd just interviewed. "She seems to have done very well at college - good reports - and she's shown me some of her work." Only, he seemed genuinely puzzled. "She doesn't seem to have achieved anything at school. I mean you'd have expected her to get Higher English, wouldn't you?" Warming to his theme, he added: "It must be really unusual for someone to leave school with nothing and do well at college?"

If there's a telephone equivalent of road rage, that would have been the time. But we're used to correcting such misapprehensions sweetly, kindly. I explained that, on the contrary, such a success story is often what further education is all about, that indeed very often it is a second chance, a chance for success.

If you're in further education yourself, you know all that. However, does anyone outside the sector really understand what we're all about? And even more worrying, do we ourselves know any longer?

I used to be crystal clear about it myself. Working in a communication section, our remit at National Certificate level was to teach the functional use of English - to ensure that students, no matter what course they had enlisted on, could be certificated as achieving a satisfactory level of skills that would be useful to them in their chosen vocational areas. At advanced level, most courses required proficiency in business communication in its many forms.

There was always provision for students who wished to cross the divide from functional English to creative or literary studies. Students could expand on their communication 4 and study a literature 1 module, which covered short story, poetry, drama or novel. Students studying a Higher National Diploma in communication had options which included narrative in fiction and film, and critical analysis of texts, the latter a unit which unleashes on formerly protected and still-sensible students the notion that meaning is not a stable entity.

It's not really a divide, more of a continuum, ran the old argument. The students who undertake critical analysis of texts do so usually because they intend to progress to a university, and the university demands evidence of this level of analysis. The students who complete communication 4 and go on to study literature 1 do so because it offers them the equivalent of a Higher English for jobs or courses which demand a literature element.

That argument was always spurious - the universities looked favourably on these optional theoretical units, and employers looked favourably on a student who had also studied literature 1 because these qualifications brought the students much closer to the normal Higher English route which they understood. Our willingness as further education colleges to comply with these pressures meant a shocking display of lack of faith in the qualifications we were awarding. If vocational education has always been seen to be the poor relation, then most of the blame falls in our own laps. If we don't have faith in it ourselves and are willing to bend to such pressures, how can we blame employers if they skim through a list of merits at advanced level and mutter, "but do you have Higher English?".

Which brings us, of course, to Higher Still, and the magic way in which vocational and academic qualifications will blend seamlessly and enjoy parity of esteem. Yes, well.

With regard to communication there must be serious doubt about the whole "literary" thrust of the units, and about the movement to have communication skills embedded in other areas. The swamping of communication areas by traditional English literature studies reflects the dominance of what is being taught in schools over what is needed in colleges. Certainly there has been some notable sandbagging, but the overwhelming impression is that we have lost ground. Speaking as someone who teaches mostly in the literary rather than the business communication areas of our courses, I should be waving the flag and rejoicing in the prospect of my students being forced to turn up for creative writing. Nonsense, you say. Creative writing is an option. Yes it is, until employers or universities, start preferring students to have this included in students' portfolios.

A colleague was waxing lyrical about education in general the other day. Phrases like opening minds, widening horizons were bandied about and you could almost hear the strains of Verdi's Triumphal March in the background. The hard truth is that we as communication lecturers have never been in the business of opening minds in the manner of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I suspect the lack of opposition to the slide towards literature studies is because many communication lecturers are frustrated English lecturers and fancy the work. We are in the business of training people for business and for employment in specific areas. If we lose sight of that again as we embrace Higher Still then chaos is come again.

Further education cannot squeal about being squeezed for funding or complain about having its territory encroached upon by schools and universities if it forgets where its remit lies. Our own section's multimedia course, for example, is an acknowledgement of where the future will take us. Yes, there will be a need still for someone to pore over the corrupt text of Hamlet and prove that every rereading is indeed a rewriting, but that is not the only way for minds to be prepared for the challenges of the future.

Further education used to be aware of that, indeed, used to be proud of it. In the headlong rush for parity and progression, the teaching of communication is in danger of losing ground to traditional ways of teaching English. The innovations and successes learned in further education have been, to a great extent, ignored.

There wasn't time, of course, to give the prospective employer the complete history of further education in 9.5 minutes. I reassured him that the demands made on his candidate were equal to second-year university level. There was no doubt he was impressed by her and was sorely tempted. But not tempted enough. The job went to another of our students. As well as her Higher National Diploma she had Higher English from school.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communication at Dundee College.

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