The debate over Higher Still is obscuring what many people in further education feel to be a much more important issue - the status of communications as a subject within the curriculum.
The principal question is over the current and future role of communications and whether or not those responsible for the curriculum should be concerned about the apparent diminishing importance of this core area.
There should be no doubt that communication skills - those skills that allow the individual to speak, write and relate effectively to others - are in demand. Employers constantly specify these skills in job advertisements, usually at a "high level".
Research by the Association of Graduate Employers demonstrates conclusively that these are the most important skills as far as organisations are concerned, being rated more highly even than the technical knowledge associated with a position. Politicians are constantly reminding us of the need for flexibility and transferability of skills in the workforce; and how often are difficulties explained in terms of a "communication problem"?
Nevertheless those of us teaching these skills in FE are close to despair because of the enormous pressures to dilute, minimise or even remove communications from the curriculum.
These pressures will have a serious effect on the quality of students we will be producing in the future. My comments are not based on any one situation but they reflect the experience and perceptions of many of my colleagues in Scottish FE.
Anyone involved with qualifications which are internally assessed is familiar with the experience of students expecting to pass and pressurising the class teacher when they do not.
For communications teachers this is often aggravated by the plea that "I need communication 4 for the Higher National Certificate". No amount of internal quality procedures can remove this pressure, especially in smaller colleges where all staff will be known to students anyway.
What has been called the "rule of automatic progression" is the expectation that if someone has passed one level then they automatically expect to pass the next. Unfortunately our subject can be seen as much more difficult than purely vocational modulesunits and so failure is something a student may not have experienced in other parts of the course. The communications tutor is therefore seen as the "baddie" and it is not unknown for parents to visit demanding that their child should "get the communications qualification" as otherwise they will not get into their HNC.
Pressure from other departments occurs at two levels - at National Certificate level where there is a need for students to gain qualifications to Higher-level courses and within Higher-level courses themselves where communications is a core unit and is needed to gain the full qualification.
Where students are not achieving the expected results because of how they perform in communications, other departments can respond in a number of ways.
Some, who acknowledge the importance of the subject in terms of the development of the individual as well as for getting qualifications, take a positive approach and seek support from the communication specialist before enrolment or make extra provision even to the extent of encouraging students to continue with the subject beyond the level required by the qualification. But these tend to be in the minority and more typical is the barely disguised threat to drop communications completely or, where the specification of the qualification does not allow this, to have it "delivered" by non-specialist (that is their own) staff.
They assume that anyone can teach the subject since, after all, everyone can speak and write English. Surprisingly enough, I have not been asked to teach cookery, although I eat, or motor vehicle engineering although I can drive a car.
College managements should be doing their best to ensure that all their students receive high quality teaching in such an important core area as communications. In fact, the opposite is happening in most centres and crude measures, such as the percentage pass rate, provoke demands for explanations of "low" success rates.
There are suggestions for a "workshop" approach instead of properly-structured classes. Requests for more time for the subject are refused. The particular demands of teaching oral skills are ignored resulting in inadequate preparation for the student (my sympathy here to anyone who has had to teach interactive communications for incorporated engineers in 20 hours!).
The notion of "payment by results" is one that is surely anathema to anyone involved in education yet this is what we now face.
If a college's funding is partly determined by the proportion of students successfully completing a course and the communications element is the one that "spoils the figures", this could lead to demands being made of communications staff which might conflict with their professional commitments.
This kind of pressure can also emerge from the design of a course. If, for example, a level 2 general Scottish vocational qualification only requires communications 2, pressure on resources may make a college provide only that level for the students thus ignoring the need to develop the individual's skills to the highest level possible.
Lead bodies may be thought of as offering support to the subject and in fact communications skills are regarded highly be vocational experts. Unfortunately, there is seldom if ever a communications specialist on the lead body with the result that the commitment to the subject remains hypothetical and the vocational specialist may encourage the idea that communications is a discretely taught subject and the student is expected to develop skills by being in the same room as a word processor.
The consequences of these pressures are serious. Students are receiving a poor deal by not having to develop their communication skills. Many are tackling Higher National courses for which they do not have the required writing or oral skills so they are unable to deal even with the essay or report writing requirements of the assessment instruments of the course.
Even when they achieve their higher national certificatediploma it is possible their skills, as attested by possession of a communication unit are apparent rather than real.
Consider the student who has just "squeezed" through communications 3 by attending classes and working very hard so that the tutor is tempted to give the benefit of the doubt for one writing assessment. He is accepted into an HNC course by a department which has been told that if it does not recruit a specific number by the start of session, the course will not run.
Communications is one of the core units and the student is struggling from the start but no extra time can be allowed to give the support he needs. In addition the writing demands of assessments in the vocational area are causing difficulty. The student either fails or again is given the "benefit of the doubt" with his fourth assessment exercise (after all student success rate is an important performance indicator).
The student achieves the HNC and is recruited by an employer who believes the student can communicate effectively at an advanced level. Because his work has never been part of the sampling for internal moderation and his group has not been looked at by the external verifier, from the Scottish Vocational Educational Council, no one is aware of a problem. And yet everyone is.
To avoid the above situation becoming widespread a number of steps are required, none of which makes any significant demand for more resources. Lead bodies, suitably backed by Scotvec should demand that communication be taught as a discrete subject at all levels of courses.
Communications should be taught only by those who have the specialist competence to do so and should no longer be regarded as a subject which can be taught by anyone, even lecturers who have to be "redeployed" from other subject areas.
College managers should ensure that every student has the opportunity to continue to develop communications skills.
If we do not take these steps a whole generation of junior (eventually senior) managers will lack the competences which employers and politicians are demanding.
Eugene Clarke has taught communications for many years in further education