Vocational upset looms for HE

Susan Young on a new report that warns of dramatic changes ahead for universities. Vocational qualifications could be earning more than half of all university students their places by the beginning of the next century.

A slow down in the increase of sixth-formers taking A-levels coupled with a growth in those opting for advanced General National Vocational Qualifications could dramatically change British universities in the 21st century, according to a report written for the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

Written by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Manchester University, the report's conclusions have already upset the Department for Education, the Confederation of British Industry and university vice-chancellors.

The report says today's 18-year-olds have a vastly increased chance of going to university at some point, and suggests that institutions will have to change radically to cope with undergraduates' new interests and talents Although arguing that diversity will be achieved by combining the academic and the "practical-technical" traditions, the report says higher education must not fossilise into a two-tier system. It suggests that with more vocational students, the shift to "practical-technical" courses will be accentuated and is "more likely to lead to technician and supervisory posts than to higher-flying professional or managerial careers".

It says: "Expansion of higher education along these lines could help to remedy a major deficiency in British education. While it has traditionally been strong in producing high-quality graduates efficiently, it has done much less, when compared with other countries, to provide sound education and training for supporting roles. It may well be that the real shortage of engineers is at upper technician level.

"If vocational ladders were to bring students into universities for what were in effect master-technician courses the gap could be filled."

Professor Smithers says that as more qualified candidates come forward, problems for the universities in deciding on a balance of courses may become more acute while the Treasury freezes expansion. He believes some form of graduate tax may be needed largely to free universities from Government financial constraints so that courses are determined by demand from students and employers.

The report says that contrary to accepted figures, six out of ten of today's 18-year-olds can now expect to enter higher education at some time in their lives. Government expansion has currently halted at 30 per cent of 18-year-olds, but this figure does not include full-time students over 21, and the growing army of mature part-timers. It is these figures - apparently never collated before - which have alarmed university vice-chancellors anxious for expansion to begin again.

Meanwhile, the DFE is concerned at implications for quality and cost.

Post-18 Education: growth, change, prospect by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson. Council for Industry and Higher Education Executive Briefing. Free.

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