An attack on General National Vocational Qualifications has been launched by university tutors who say they are an inadequate alternative to A-levels as preparation for academic life.
Criticisms of GNVQs, at the annual meeting of the Association for Science Education in Lancaster last week, have deepened a rift between the pro and anti lobbies in higher education.
It comes at a sensitive time, just when the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was hoping for a second year running to guarantee interviews for all GNVQ applicants to HE. Students on the new courses were guinea-pigs and deserved compensatory advantages, the UCAS said.
But some tutors have accused the UCAS of "blackmail" and of applying undue pressures. They insist no such further guarantees will be given.
Richard Collins, director of admissions at the University of Lancaster, dismissed the new courses as second rate. "The good do A-levels, the rest do GNVQs," he said. Dr Collins insisted that, while the methods of study may be "inspirational to those not suited to A-levels", such skills were "lost or forgotten" within a year and were ill-suited to academic study.
"The subjects where most problems will occur are in science and engineering and these will come in the transfer to university," he said. The general science courses were not good preparation for single honours, which required a clearly-defined body of knowledge.
His criticisms were supported by the facts, he said. There was, for example, a woeful lack of maths in the science GNVQ. "We have carried out surveys and found that it is the students' maths grade which correlates closest with the final degree result.
A sizable minority of tutors supported Dr Collins' views. But many challenged him, insisting they had evidence to support other routes to excellence.
A study of l90 Kent University students from non-traditional FE backgrounds showed that on average they did better than those with A-levels, not only on graduation but in the longer term.
Demands on higher education were also changing, said Frank Burnet, Master of Rutherford College which specialises in helping mature students at Kent.
There was more emphasis on acquiring broader skills other than scientific ones. There was also more need for students to cope with independent and self-directed learning.
There were difficulties with the new GNVQs, he said. Some were to do with the lack of clearly defined knowledge but most were bureaucratic or to do with the failings of the universities admissions system. "If the teething problems can be sorted out then I believe GNVQs will work. More of such students will be welcome.
Others criticised Dr Collins and his supporters for not encouraging the broader range of students needed if higher education is to expand. Universities were increasingly facing recruitment crises in science and technology. Also, financial pressures led to students taking places nearer home.
Kent University was a typical case. Only 10 per cent of applicants for all courses last year lived in the county, but 40 per cent of these took up places. Only 11 per cent of applicants from outside the county took-up offers.
Recruitment patterns were even more dramatic in science where 30 per cent were Kent residents. Two years ago it was only 3 per cent.