Anat Arkin on how to ensure that qualifications travel well. Concern that overseas students could receive British vocational qualifications without reaching the same standards as candidates in this country has led the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to tighten up quality control.
Awarding bodies for NVQs have established links with 68 countries and the first overseas programme leading to General National Vocational Qualifications has just been launched in Oman.
The rules for setting up an assessment centre for NVQs or GNVQs are the same in Oman or Bahrain as they are in Oldham or Bristol. The centres must be approved by one of the 125 awarding bodies authorised by the NCVQs to make the awards and keep checks on quality standards. But some UK colleges and other training organisations have managed to sidestep the system by selling NVQs directly to overseas training providers. They have then entered candidates from these unapproved centres as their own students, effectively hoodwinking the awarding bodies which have no way of knowing if the candidates had been properly assessed.
John Hillier, chief executive of the NCVQ, has warned that these practices could undermine the value of NVQs and GNVQs. "Lack of quality assurance procedures will mean we are short-selling ourselves, our vocational qualification systems and our overseas candidates," he said.
The NCVQ only became aware of the problem earlier this year when Mr Hillier visited Oman and met an NVQ assessor from a UK college operating without the knowledge of any awarding body.
"Our rules did not explicitly prohibit these arrangements until very recently, " Mr Hillier told The TES. "It was open to a centre - which might have been a college or a company or any other kind of training provider - to extend its boundaries to include an overseas location."
New guidelines which the council plans to publish in January will prohibit these "franchising" arrangements and make it clear that every overseas centre must be separately approved by an awarding body.
The guidelines will also stress that awarding bodies need to ensure that quality checks are as rigorous abroad as they are at home.
Concerns about quality control have triggered a debate about the wider issues involved in delivering NVQs and GNVQs abroad, including the issue of language. At the moment candidates can only be assessed in English or Welsh, but at a recent meeting with awarding bodies the NCVQ agreed to look into the possibility of offering the qualifications in other languages.
NCVQ and the awarding bodies are also considering the question of adapting NVQs and GNVQs to local needs. Ursula Russell, the Royal Society of Arts Examinations Board's director of education services, argues that while the awards' mandatory units should remain unchanged, there might be scope for giving a local context to optional and additional units. But this context illustration should not go too far.
"People are coming to us because they want international credibility," she said. "They want RSA or BTEC or City and Guilds qualifications because in some countries they don't trust their own examinations. In Oman it is simply because they want to internationalise."
Despite growing international interest in NVQs and GNVQs, some awarding bodies are taking a cautious approach to exporting qualifications that were developed to meet UK needs. The City and Guilds of London Institute for instance, does not automatically make its NVQs available outside the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It restricts them to centres which can show that awards are appropriate to local conditions.
However, the institute offers a range of international qualifications modelled on traditional, UK-based City and Guilds schemes which have been adapted to the international market. Some of these qualifications use competence-based assessment systems similar to those developed for NVQs. But with candidates' underpinning knowledge measured through written tests, the standards of these awards are clearly easier to guarantee than those based largely on internal assessment.
The City and Guilds international schemes could provide a model for a new international vocational qualification. One idea raised by the NCVQ and the awarding bodies is to offer a qualification of this kind where existing awards are inappropriate. Or the NCVQ and the awarding bodies could help other countries develop their own vocational qualifications, geared to local needs but using NVQ-style quality control and assessment .
Whatever comes of these proposals, it seems clear that UK colleges and other training providers will be able to play an important role in the drive to export British vocational qualifications. Certainly, the revised NCVQ guidelines will not affect legitimate partnerships such as the one in Oman where the RSA and Manchester College of Arts and Technology have won a government contract to provide GNVQs in the Oman's five technical and industrial colleges.
Whereas some of the colleges involved in unsupervised franchise arrangements have been offering to train internal assessors in as little as two weeks, the RSA's Ursula Russell maintains that it takes around a year to train teachers and assessors and put together the infrastructure needed to deliver GNVQs. "We have to make them go through all the hoops that any school or college would do in the UK," she said. "A GNVQ issued outside the UK should be worth exactly the same as one issued in the UK."
For Manchester College of Arts and Technology, which is helping to train Omani staff, develop materials and set up learning resource centres, there is more kudos than profit in the arrangement. Nye Rowlands, principal of the college, said: "We are doing it to extend the range of skills of our staff and in the hope that it helps the image of the college both in the UK and abroad."