Two-tier backlash feared

Lucy Ward

Proposals for new higher-level vocational courses are likely to provoke a storm as critics fear they will recreate the old higher education divide.

As the National Council for Vocational Qualifications launched a wide consultation into the suggested extension of the general national vocational qualification framework, universities are suggesting the new qualifications could lead to a new split between academic and vocational institutions.

Though the levels 4 and 5 GNVQs are intended to link closely with academic degrees, the admissions director of one old university warned they may be adopted mainly by ex-polytechnics, where the expertise already exists to run vocational programmes.

The vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, a new university, has warned the qualifications must be taken up as broadly as possible in the sector to avoid just such a split.

"My fear would be that we will end up with almost a reinvention of the binary divide- a segmentation of higher education," says John Stoddart.

But Dr Dick Collins, Lancaster University admissions director, admits to being suspicious about the concept of higher-level vocational qualifications.

"It may well be that the ex-polys latch on to the higher-level GNVQs as being more their scene.

"We would not be very good at teaching vocational things whereas they are good at it. It is not a matter of us being better than them - it is a case of horses for courses. Everyone trying to do the same thing is nonsense."

Universities have been wary of GNVQs after observing the bureaucracy and other problems associated with the introduction of the first three levels. Many tutors have criticised the qualifications as an inadequate preparation for academic life, though others accept that more and more students will be taking GNVQs as a springboard to higher education.

The consultation paper is going out to universities, colleges, professional bodies, employers and training organisations.

It is accompanied by a letter insisting the decision to introduce the qualifications has already been taken.

The proposals were included in the Government's initial announcement of its intention to bring in GNVQs in 1991. Higher-level GNVQs were kept on hold while the foundation, intermediate and advanced levels were brought in.

A proposed model contained in the consultation paper sets out a format closely related to the lower- level qualifications, featuring a structure of units allowing credit accumulation and transfer to degree programmes.

A GNVQ level 4 might be aligned either with the standard of an honours degree, though covering only two-thirds of the content, or could be aligned with the standard achieved after the first two years of a degree.

Bodies consulted also have the chance to comment on whether the higher-level GNVQs should follow the model of levels 1 to 3 or should offer a more specialist option.

NCVQ chairman Michael Heron pledged the framework would not be extended without general support from education and industry, but said early soundings suggested a need for the new qualifications in many areas as a step towards higher level national vocational qualifications and professional competence.

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