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Vocational exams open doors

More than 90 per cent of GNVQ applicants win their university place, reports Ian Nash.

More and more students are getting a university place without A-levels, ministers will announce next week.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service are expected to show that the number of students with advanced GNVQs applying for degree and diploma courses has doubled in a year. More than nine out of ten students with the relatively untried vocational qualification are understood to have won a place.

The rise has occurred in all subjects with even the more traditional English departments and medical schools taking their first students with advanced general national vocational qualifications. Both old and new universities are turning to them as well as the further and higher education colleges.

The Government has invested considerable political capital in promoting the GNVQ as "an alternative route to excellence" while resisting growing pressure from teachers and academics to scrap A-levels. The results are therefore a big fillip for ministers.

Last year just over 10,000 GNVQ students applied for higher education courses, with 89 per cent offered places. This year the number is expected to top 20,000 with around 93 per cent being awarded places. This is seen as all the more significant given the surge in the number of successful A-level candidates.

Almost 75,000 students registered for advanced GNVQ programmes in 1994, which means that just under a third reached university or college standard. This is despite the pressure on ministers to tighten up standards which led to their commissioning a wholesale review of GNVQs by Dr John Capey of Exeter College.

The UCAS figures are expected to show that a greater proportion of young people took A-levels as well as GNVQs, but this appears to have made no difference to their being accepted.

Admissions tutors confirmed this, saying they had made provisional offers based on interviews, coursework and expected GNVQ grades alone. One said: "Adding the A-level is often a belt-and-braces job."

One in 10 of the old universities is now taking GNVQ students. Some medical schools, keen to exploit new sources of revenue and students, are particularly interested in GNVQs as they produce students suited to their new-style courses such as nursing degrees and physiotherapy.

Critics of the GNVQ have cautiously welcomed the sudden rise in applications and in applied degree courses designed to suit GNVQ students.

Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Brunel University, said: "The rise in these vocational degrees has got to be to the good. We may at last be getting the balance right and shifting away from the exclusively subject-based degrees." The traditional weakness of the English system was vocational or "applied" education. It was why technology had been dropped from the national curriculum post 14, he said.

"If GNVQs are developing into new ladders to higher education, then it is a clear indication that the country is at long last coming to terms with what applied education is all about."

The GNVQ in health and social care, which was taken at advanced level for the first time this year, is expected to have served particularly well as a new route to higher education.

Janet Higgins, a tutor at Middlesex University, said: "Of the 100 students we accepted for the joint honours BSc health studies, 20 have done the GNVQ and they are clearly coming in with the goods."

Several tutors said that GNVQ students were weak in their first year compared with their A-level counterparts, but often outstripped them in year two when other skills such as communications and problem solving came into their own.

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