Vocational degree harks back to heyday

6th February 2009 at 00:00

For an educational qualification to succeed, it must, broadly speaking, do two things. First, it must provide meaningful measurement of - and differentiation between - people's knowledge levels and, hopefully, an indication of their ability to use that knowledge. Second, and far more importantly for a qualification's long term survival, it must be widely accepted by students, educationists and employers.

Many qualifications manage to measure knowledge. Where some have failed is in achieving widespread currency.

So how would a bachelors degree in vocational studies fare?

All new qualifications are at an immediate disadvantage in that they lack widespread acceptance. Students don't know what they are, educationists can be sceptical and employers often downright hostile.

Foundation degrees are a good example. They provide useful vocationally orientated knowledge. But the sub-degree has taken a long time to establish itself in a society that places so much emphasis on the benefits of a university education.

Creating a new vocational degree may add to the confusion over qualifications in a crowded marketplace. But any such degrees could be at an advantage in that they would be full honours degrees and therefore an end in their own right, not so-called "stepping stone" qualifications like foundation degrees.

Assuming vocational degrees came with rigorous curriculae delivering graduate-level, vocationally orientated knowledge and skills of the sort needed by employers, they would seem to be a marketer's dream.

In addition, the creation of a central awarding body along the lines of the old Council for National Academic Awards could bring the added advantage of cutting universities out of the picture.

Arguably, the fact that foundation degrees are validated by universities but delivered in FE colleges sends out the message that not only are these qualifications not proper degrees, but that colleges - however good a job they do in delivering them - still cannot be trusted with full ownership.

The implications of a new awarding body are potentially immense for colleges. The polytechnics flourished under the council - and its qualifications, and the institutions that offered them, were embraced widely by students and employers.

It is a mark of the potency of this combination of central awarding body and vocationally orientated institutions that people still speak with regret at the loss of the polytechnic sector 17 years after its demise.

New qualifications, especially those with a vocational flavour, can flourish and fade with alarming frequency, and further chopping and changing in this area could be counter-productive. However, given the potential benefits, the vocational degree deserves serious consideration.

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