The threat to qualification bio-diversity

16th May 1997 at 01:00
If we're not careful, university degrees will come to resemble some of the worst features of A-levels, with a narrowing impact on the curriculum and a particularly damaging effect on other qualifications in the educational spectrum.

The day is not far away when the character of a degree flips over: from a positive achievement for a significant percentage of the population to something which it is a disadvantage to be without. Maybe that is largely for individuals to decide, and the market for graduates will operate in response to it. But I fear for the way in which intermediate, sub-degree qualifications may be being devalued.

Ironically, given its expansion and democratisation, higher education increasingly means going for a degree and nothing else, to the detriment of other possible routes and achievements. This resembles the way that in many schools the secondary school curriculum has been geared to A-levels and university entry.

The fact that this reliance on A-levels is much less the case in Scotland should not close our eyes to the parallel with what is happening to the degree. The notion of a "slippery slope to a degree" might seem strange indeed. After all, a degree sits near the apex of the qualifications pyramid, and is an asset not a disaster. But should it be the almost inevitable destination, with progress to it interrupted only by external problems such as financial difficulty?

"Access" is increasingly interpreted as if it is only to be judged in relation to degree programmes. Access to anything else - a diploma, for example, with no guarantee of progression to a degree - is seen as semi-fraudulent, a second or third-best option.

There is only one gold, or possibly Euro, standard, and that has degree stamped on it, in whatever language. Other qualifications are only stepping stones to that destination, not achievements in their own right. To change from one not particularly original metaphor to another, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas are rungs on a ladder, and it's obvious that anyone on that ladder will want to carry on climbing rather than stay perched at a lower level.

It is entirely rational for individual students to adopt this attitude. A recent study on graduates' work from the University of Central England reports that, among graduate-level recruiters, there is relatively little interest in alternatives to the current degree programme.

Apparently, "the idea of shorter degree programmes or interim diploma-style, pre-degree qualifications was thoroughly disliked". It is not just general recruiters who are pushing the inflation along. Professional bodies give it a strong upward twist by declaring for all-graduate status, sluicing out the value from what is often an elaborate system of sub-degree awards with complex mixes of study and experience.

It seems thoroughly perverse that employers at the same time complain about younger full-time students leaving university with little idea of the culture and nature of the workplace. If they want a better mix, then they should be sending very clear signals in favour of a different post-secondary awards structure, and not hastening the convergence of everything on to the degree path.

It it is very clear that we are far behind most comparable countries in what Andy Green and Hilary Steedman term level-3 awards, namely, precisely those intermediate ones so disliked by the recruiters. The qualifications profile of our workforce has an hourglass shape, with bulges at the top and bottom and not much breadth in the middle.

In this, we resemble the United States but differ sharply from France, Germany and Singapore. International comparisons are too often used simplistically. Economies and societies will flourish with different mixes of educational levels. But one impact of this is sure: it fatally weakens the motivation of those at the bottom. A university degree is well beyond their horizon as things stand. Therefore they will not even begin on a learning route. And the more the degree dominates the qualification scene, the less their connection to this scene.

A clear and understandable system of progression routes is crucial, everyone agrees. But the surprising corollary to this is that there should be a clear and valued system of stopping points. So let's try another metaphor: degrees as fast-growing plants, verdant and often productive, but overshadowing smaller growths to the point where qualification bio-diversity is threatened. Now there's a strange campaigning point.

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